A New Yorker’s Journey through the Affordable Housing Crisis
The home is the center of life. It is a refuge from the grind of work, the pressure of school, and the menace of the streets. We say that at home, we can be "ourselves." Everywhere else, we are someone else. At home, we remove our masks.
--Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
If it wasn’t apparent by now, I am a proud New Yorker. This pride is personified in my speech, in my style, and in my dry sense of humor. One of the unique experiences I have had as a New Yorker from a working-class background is the fact that I left the city by choice. I moved out of my childhood home at age 18 to go to college, lived abroad, moved back to the city, and left again to attend graduate school. In a city where over 20,000 families are evicted from their homes each year, I credit my fortune to a savvy single mother and progressive state policies.
I grew up in a two-bedroom apartment with my mother and brother in the northwest section of the Bronx. My mom has held onto this apartment for nearly 30 years, an enormous accomplishment for which she does not receive enough credit. She moved into the rent-stabilized unit in 1990, when the state law prevented landlords from increasing their rents more than an approved percentage (1-5%) at the end of a tenant’s lease. Despite rapid gentrification and constant threats of eviction, the law was on my mother’s side, and my family enjoyed a right that so many of my fellow New Yorkers could not: the right to a stable home.
In his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, sociologist Matthew Desmond writes, “Residential stability begets a kind of psychological stability, which allows people to invest in their home and social relationships. It begets school stability, which increases the chances that children will excel and graduate. And it begets community stability, which encourages neighbors to form strong bonds and take care of their block.”
I recognize how fortunate I am to not have had to endure the psychological trauma of being displaced or living in a shelter. The schools I attended were by choice, not by circumstance. And my strongest relationships today were formed as a child in this one neighborhood of the Bronx that I’ve always called home. However, too many poor families in New York City and across the United States are unable to enjoy that stability because they are evicted at such high rates.
I became exposed to these harsh realities when I moved back to the Bronx in 2015. Like my mother, I also lived in a rent-stabilized apartment, but in the 25 years since she moved, landlords had gained enormous influence in state politics, and the term “rent stabilization” became obsolete. I saw my rent increase dramatically, and there was little that the city’s courts could do about it. State politicians, who received large donations from the real estate lobby, began creating loopholes that circumvented previous legislation. These loopholes included preferential rent, major capital improvements, and vacancy increases. I felt a grave injustice was happening to me. Even worse, I knew that families, who were earning much less and who had far more responsibilities, were even more vulnerable to these kinds of predatory practices. I was inspired to take action. I began documenting all of my interactions with my landlord and shared my experiences with those searching for an affordable apartment. I joined a tenant’s advocacy organization and led a coalition that fought against some of these loopholes.
My work in New York, unfortunately, was cut short when I moved to Austin to pursue my Master’s degree at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. However, the affordable housing crisis is not limited to just one city. Austin residents have also been impacted by gentrification and rising housing prices. In November 2018, Austin voters approved a $250 million general obligation bond that will enable the city to create and preserve affordable housing. During this time, I began consulting for Woollard Nichols and Associates, who had recently been contracted by NeighborWorks America to conduct research on the affordable housing programs of 10 large U.S. cities. After months of research and phone calls to local housing agencies, I have learned a lot about the different mechanisms municipalities use to finance and administer affordable housing development and preservation.
First, cities must find a financial source. Some cities, like Austin and Seattle, have funded their projects through a bond or a levy, which the taxpayers approve. Other cities like Boston and Washington D.C. have housing trust funds, which are permanent streams of revenue for affordable housing. Several mayors, like those in Denver, Washington D.C., and New York, have made affordable housing a top priority and have allocated additional funds to construct new units. All of the cities I surveyed leverage their funding with state and federal resources.
A second and essential component of affordable housing development and preservation is the administration of the funds. Once the money is received, housing agencies hire and use existing employees to administer the programs. They post, evaluate, and approve developers’ applications and monitor the construction of projects through its completion. The people running the affordable housing programs are bright and passionate civil servants, who are constantly brainstorming creative solutions that address the need for affordable housing for vulnerable populations while remaining realistic about the housing market and the rising construction costs. Flexibility and adaptation are key to problem-solving housing issues.
The qualitative aspect of this study was particularly useful in shaping my understanding of affordable housing on a national scale. The decisions a large city, like New York, makes can be very different from a smaller city, like Denver. Smaller cities pride themselves on transparency and community engagement. They often have public meetings where they share their reports and ask for feedback. They are accountable to the public, largely because most of their funding relied on voting measures. Larger cities, where the rate of displacement is much greater, may not engage with the public as often, but have more programs that benefit more people. Local, state, and federal politics play a critical role in funding for each city’s affordable housing program. However, mayors can have the most impact. Local elections have enormous consequences for cities and can dictate whether affordable housing will be made a priority or shamefully neglected.
A home is somewhere a person can feel safe. It is where people feel most themselves. When someone has a stable home, other aspects of their lives (work, school, relationships) become more manageable. Although I worry that displacement rates have accelerated far more quickly than government agencies can respond, I was encouraged by the program managers I spoke with and the recent elections that put housing affordability on the ballot. The tide is changing- more people have become aware of the issues and grassroots movements are effectively diminishing the power and influence of big money in politics. Affordable housing is fundamental to a family’s success and wellbeing. Although the movement has made great strides, we as citizens must remain vigilant and continue pressuring our legislators to be on the side of people, not profit.
Jade Vasquez is a first-year Master of Global Policy Studies student and CHASP Ambassador at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. She previously worked as a Program and Research Associate at Internationals Network for Public Schools, a nonprofit that designs and supports public high schools for recently arrived immigrants. She also served in the Peace Corps as a Youth Development Specialist in rural El Salvador. Jade is interested in studying U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and exploring the relationship between the U.S. criminal justice and immigration systems. After graduation, she hopes to continue her work in international development, conflict resolution, immigration advocacy, and criminal justice reform in the public or nonprofit sector.
The views, information, or opinions expressed by blog contributors are solely those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Center for Health and Social Policy, the LBJ School of Public Affairs, or The University of Texas at Austin or affiliated employees.