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Aug 20, 2021
Priced out: The 2020 census throws Brooklyn’s affordable housing crisis into relief
From 2010 to 2020, Brooklyn added 78,300 housing units. In that same time, the population grew by 230,000
The recently released 2020 New York City census results tell the story of a population boom: the city overall topped 8.8 million residents, a record high. In Brooklyn, the most-populous borough, the population swelled by 230,000 over the last decade to a total of 2.74 million residents. These figures were lauded by politicians, from Mayor Bill de Blasio to his likely successor Eric Adams, as indicative of the city’s attractiveness for families and workers.
They’re correct, strictly speaking. But their boosterism is undercut by a bigger issue, one that has been mounting in Brooklyn for decades: a housing crisis that, following the release of the 2020 census, has been thrown into stark relief.
“We haven’t prioritized housing, period,” Annetta Seecharran, the executive director of the Chhaya Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit that advocates for the development of affordable housing, tells Brooklyn Magazine. “We’ve talked a good game about it as a city, but we haven’t invested, we haven’t built, and we haven’t produced new housing stock.”
Consider this. From 2010 to 2020, Brooklyn added 78,300 housing units while the population grew by 230,000. The failure to add new housing stock caused rents to skyrocket; the median rent in Brooklyn this January was $2,395, a high price despite a pandemic dip that has disproportionately affected residents of color, who risk losing their homes while being priced out of rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.
Citywide, the lack of affordable housing has also contributed to a homelessness epidemic. The current homeless population exceeds 79,0000, the highest since the Great Depression, with children accounting for more than a quarter of that figure.
The pandemic has radically exacerbated the problem. Low-income renters across the city—whose jobs were most affected by pandemic closures—have amassed hundreds of millions of dollars in arrears since the eviction moratorium was put into place in March 2020. Landlords, with an eye to the end of the moratorium on August 31 (which might be extended into October), have already initiated legal suits that could potentially force tens of thousands of mostly Black and brown residents from their homes.
The dwindling number of affordable neighborhoods and housing units is the result of several intersecting problems. Over the last 20 years, wages have stagnated while the average cost to rent an apartment in the city has increased by roughly 40 percent. More than 450,000 homes classify as severely rent burdened, meaning that over half of household income goes to rent, leaving little for other essentials like food and medical care. Compounding these financial trends are the myriad challenges, political and otherwise, of building more housing.
“From just a policy and regulatory perspective, we make it incredibly difficult to add new housing stock to neighborhoods, either through land use policy or through bureaucratic hurdles with the Department of Buildings,” says Tucker Reed, former president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership and a co-founder of the real estate development firm Totem.
In other words, any proposed solutions or remedies are inevitably contentious and wrapped in politics.
The Gowanus rezoning drama
On August 13, Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee for mayor, expressed support for a rezoning plan in Gowanus that could potentially add 8,000 housing units to the area on the condition of the release of hundreds of millions of dollars in support of local public housing. While the plan is supported by affordable housing advocates, a vocal coalition of critics say the plan would introduce further environmental and economic problems.
“This rezoning is premature,” says Jack Riccobono, a member of Voice of Gowanus, an advocacy group, in an interview with the New York Times. “The city has created a faulty and incomplete and legally insufficient environmental review.”
Brad Lander, likely the city’s next comptroller under Adams, also expressed support for the plan while speaking to a group of journalists gathered in the neighborhood.
“We both support the concept of rezoning whiter, wealthier neighborhoods with a single commitment to make sure that housing is genuinely affordable, and real opportunities are created for Black and brown working-class families,” he said.
The 8,000 units of housing included in the Gowanus plan might seem like a drop in the bucket given the scale of the borough’s crisis. But Chris Walters, a land use policy coordinator with the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development—an organization that works with communities to win affordable housing—says the ANHD supports the rezoning plan because it involves the mandatory creation of affordable housing in precisely the type of wealthier, whiter neighborhood that Lander alluded to.
“You’re changing the zoning to mandate affordable housing where you’re not getting enough of it built today,” he says. “If you’re not considering supply in terms of what neighborhoods are taking on that new density, then you just replicate the existing inequality that we have.”
Walters pointed to other solutions for bridging the affordable housing gap, including rezoning assets owned by the city, such as parking lots. He also lauded grassroots efforts, such as the Bushwick Community Plan, which was a rezoning proposal spearheaded by community leaders and supported by two council members that prioritized affordable housing over market rate housing stock. It was shot down by de Blasio early last year after his administration argued that it was tantamount to a downzoning.
In a recent Walters report wrote for the ANHD, he explains why de Blasio’s zero-sum approach to housing development does not address the systemic issues driving the housing crisis.
“Unlike the Department of City Planning, we do not start with the assumption that a new unit of housing, regardless of its affordability, is always a positive, or that its effective filter down to benefit those most in need,” writes Walters. He adds later: “Neighborhood rezoning must be applied carefully, only in neighborhoods with low displacement risk where they would help increase, not decrease, the ratio of affordable to market rate housing.”
His report also found that, since 2014, only 19 percent of new housing stock citywide classified as affordable, while 81 percent was introduced at market rate.
Seecharran, of the Chhaya Community Development Corporation, suggested other solutions, devised by a coalition of more than 80 housing organizations over the past year and compiled in a report titled United for Housing—“a blueprint for housing investment for New York City’s next mayor.”
Key elements of the plan involve an annual $4 billion investment that would fund rental assistance, expand homeownership opportunities, and preserve the existing affordable housing stock in the New York City Housing Authority—the largest public housing organization in the United States with over 400,000 tenants, which estimates it needs $40 billion to repair aging buildings and address a long list of infrastructure problems.
The expansion of homeownership, explains Seecharran, is vital to any long term resolution to this crisis. Homeownership is a key to generational wealth—which systemic issues have denied Black families at a rate far greater than white families—with impacts that go beyond the financial implications.
“When somebody owns their home, their mindset changes,” she says. “Civic engagement improves when people own their homes. Their overall stake and commitment in themselves and their community changes.”
Reed hopes that the release of the 2020 census data might catalyze actual progress—or at least meaningful political will—towards resolving the housing crisis.
“This census data is pushing the conversation forward even more,” says Reed. “It opens people’s eyes to the fact that unless we start to totally change the way we approach this stuff, that we’re destined to price ourselves out of our own city.”
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