New York City
The densest and most populous city in the US, New York is a melting pot of millions of diverse people drawn from all over the world. New York was not always so attractive though, particularly in the 1970s after national trends of urban disinvestment, suburbanization, and exportation of industrial production created an economic and demographic void that cities struggled to fill. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers left the city as it declined and became an unsafe place to live in.
Today, New York is successful as a dense city known for its financial innovation and cultural capital. Since the 1980s, New York’s population has rapidly grown and added more than a million people to an estimated population of over 8.5 million. New York’s housing supply has not met this population growth however, causing a tight housing market in which an increasing number of people at lower and middle income bands are burdened by housing costs, forced into crowded situations, displaced into a different unit, or even forced into homelessness.
Who is vulnerable?
While New York is unique in that a larger band of middle and moderate income households are experiencing housing pressure, certain populations remain more vulnerable to gentrification forces. In particular, the lowest income brackets of 30% AMI or less have the greatest shortage of housing units.
While some of the most vulnerable residents are protected from rising prices by rent regulation or public housing provided by NYCHA, these residents still feel pressure because of commercial displacement of stores selling basic commodities like groceries. Service providers are still able to continue providing most of their other social services due to the extensive subway system linking most neighborhoods to service locations.
Policy Responses and Limitations
This is not New York’s first time dealing with issues of housing affordability. For decades, the city has employed many different tools to subsidize the building of residential units or the provision of units to low and middle income families. Rent control and stabilization have frozen or restricted increases of unit rental prices since the 1920s. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) has provided government built and subsidized rental units to middle and low income residents since 1934. The state has offered tax exemptions for new residential construction, sometimes targeting specific income bands like the Mitchell-Lama Housing Program enacted in 1955, or specific areas like the 421-A started in 1971.
The city also has provided services for the homeless since the 1930s Progressive Era but made even further commitments in the 1980s by guaranteeing emergency shelter to all following the New York Supreme Court Callahan v. Carey decision which established a right to shelter. The city also increased construction of supportive housing and shelters. Between these programs and many others, New York consistently spends more than other US cities to provide housing, yet still has seen increases in episodic homelessness and a shortage of affordable units for the poorest populations.
For the South Bronx, gentrification has been a looming danger for several years, and most zoning changes and new construction are viewed with suspicion. Outside of Mott Haven at the southernmost edge of the Bronx along the Harlem River, where multiple dense towers are popping up, new construction is dispersed and hard to read unless one knows the area. Despite the subtlety of improvements in the South Bronx, speculation is rampant and causes land prices and rents to rise.
While the loudest voices push for resistance towards new zoning changes and for more affordable units at 30% AMI, more economically secure residents push for greater support for higher income tiers of affordability to create middle class support. While different groups have taken advantage of different tools (such as voicing their opinions at the Community Board meetings), conflicting desires for dealing with gentrification have led to a patchwork policy throughout the South Bronx.
With many homeless shelters and public housing complexes in the district, the South Bronx is one of the the poorest areas in the city as over 40% of residents are below the poverty line, almost double the city’s ratio. This exacerbates the stressed public school system, which manifests in low educational attainment. About 65% of South Bronx residents have not gone further than high school, and nearly 40% of residents haven’t graduated from high school or gotten a GED. A large share of South Bronx residents are unprepared to take on ongoing and future neighborhood change such as citywide increases in living expenses and new interest in the area for development.
South Bronx residents have many strengths to leverage though. The city applies many regulations to rental units and landlord behavior and recently passed legal protections ensuring renters’ right to legal counsel in the event of eviction, so that low income renters can better protect themselves. Additionally, there are many active community groups within the area that advocate for benefits from investment to be distributed to existing residents, particularly those that are most financially disadvantaged and at risk. Local city council members also have significant control over which income tiers are targeted for affordable units through the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program.
Opportunities for the South Bronx stem from its strengths. Advocates can use housing market pressure and development dollars to leverage public goods, funds, and support for the existing community. Many lots, particularly along commercial corridors, can be redeveloped at a higher density without disrupting the neighborhood fabric too drastically to accommodate new building and investments in the area. The South Bronx is also well connected by transit to the city’s downtown areas, allowing residents to access jobs if given the training.