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New report from state comptroller finds severe housing costs burden New Yorkers

Student housing in Albany's Pine Hills neighborhood.
Dave Lucas
Student housing in Albany's Pine Hills neighborhood.

Although there is disagreement over the details of how to address it, most elected officials point to housing as a top concern in New York state.

According to a new reportby the state comptroller, Democrat Tom DiNapoli, almost 3 million New Yorkers face housing costs that take up more than 30 percent of their household income — and 20 percent are spending more than half of their income on housing. That puts New York near the top of the scale, with acute effects in the Mid-Hudson Valley and Long Island plus urban centers around the state.

DiNapoli spoke with WAMC’s Ian Pickus. 

People like the governor use the term “housing crisis.” Based on this report, is she correct?

Yeah, I think she is. And you know, this report is the final installment of our New Yorkers in Need series of reports. And I suspect just as you set up our conversation, no one is surprised to hear that housing costs have been growing and are a significant burden. But what this report really quantifies is how severe it is, and the fact that the numbers really are growing, and that when you look at New York state compared to other states, we're really among the highest in terms of those cost burdens. And certainly for lower-income New Yorkers, it's been an issue for a long time. But now we're seeing folks that arguably would be in the category of middle class, they are facing increased burdens in this area as well. And it's owner occupied housing, it's rental housing. And clearly the programs that we've had thus far, be it federal or state, are not keeping up with addressing this challenge.

What are the dangers of people spending such a high percentage of their income on the housing? 

Well, one of the most obvious is the crowding out of other central costs. Take another issue that we focused on, food insecurity, another growing problem in our state; if you're having to choose between quality food and paying the rent or adequate food, I mean, that's certainly a an easy example to show of just how the housing cost burden impacts on other essentials, not even to mention, you know, money you may be trying to save for your kids’ education or money for updated appliances in your home. So that, you know, there's a long list of other kinds of important expenses that would be crowded out if you're putting more of your money towards paying the mortgage or paying your rent.

What is the role of race in this dynamic? 

Well, you know, that's an important question and a challenging one, because it's very clear from the numbers that we have in our report that there is a big difference. In fact, when you look at the New York state numbers for Hispanic, Black, also Asian households, the numbers are much higher in terms of cost burden of housing compared to white families and white owners or white renters. So those disparities are ones that we have to acknowledge are exacerbating other concerns about income inequality, again, issues that we've been talking about for a long time. But when you look at the housing numbers, it shows that this is one of the areas that's certainly contributing to the disparities that we acknowledge are happening to this day in our state. 

Why is the situation worse in New York compared to other states? 

We've been a high cost state for a long time, we've also had, compared to other states, among the highest rates of homelessness, which obviously is an issue that's out there, has been for a long time, has certainly been made worse of late, with the number of asylum seekers coming in needing housing. So we just have had a dynamic in New York that's made it much more challenging. 

OK, now for the hard part. What should be done to address these concerns? 

Well, it has to be a multifaceted approach. I mean, certainly from our perspective at the state level, more transparency and more efficiency in administering the programs we already have on the books. We've had a number of audits on housing programs, Mitchell-Lama and other housing programs that really have shown need to be administered more effectively and more fairly.

As you know, the governor has identified housing as a key issue and after some lack of success with her approach last year, there's the approach that emphasizes incentives more, having communities identify as pro-housing, really work to ramp up the acceptance of the need for there to be more housing units developed because, you know, one of the issues in New York isn't just terms supply, getting back to one of your earlier points, we're not building housing at the same rate as so many other states. So supply has been constricted. 

But I think one of the key messages in our report also is to recognize that the federal government has to play a larger role. The state cannot do it on its own, certain localities can't do it on their own. And what you've seen over a number of years is that the federal government has pulled back from many of the housing programs, certainly in terms of direct support for housing development in terms of low-income housing. So more in terms of federal tax credits, Section Eight, you know, which many people are familiar with, we certainly need more opportunities for federal backing up of Section Eight housing opportunities. So it really has to be a multifaceted approach. The federal government has to do more. The state has been trying but let's make sure we're doing as efficient a job as possible state programs, support for the pro-housing agenda that Governor Hochul has put forward, and more acceptance at the local level, more buy-in at the local level, that there has to be more of this kind of emphasis on creating more supply. 

Do you see a link here to the stagnation of wage growth? 

I mean, certainly that contributes. I think that's a fair question. I mean, you know, depending on the studies you look at, for some categories of employment there actually has been some wage growth, but stagnation certainly happens because wage growth may be happening, but inflation is happening and that undercuts the wage growth that's there. So we're seeing mixed message as far as where inflation is at right now. So that will contribute to that wage stagnation. And yet the housing costs go up. We see the rental costs go up, mortgage rates being high. And one other piece I’d mention that we allude to in our report, during the pandemic, we had certain supports, the ERAP program, emergency rental assistance, we need to look at those kinds of programs to continue. So there are real supports that have to be put out there. And certainly for those that require supportive housing, we've had a new appreciation for the fact that we have to spend more and address the mental health crisis that's out there, but part of the answer to that is providing more supportive housing for people that need it so that they don't end up homeless. And that's obviously been an issue for a long time. 

Are you optimistic that the Democrats who control the state legislature and the governor will hear your report for what it is and come to some sort of agreement on housing that was elusive last year? I mean, you mentioned the pro-housing community designation, which is maybe a step in the direction that Hochul had been seeking in 2023. But this seems like it's going to be a tough nut to crack by the end of the session. 

I am optimistic. And I say that because both in terms of what the governor has laid out there, and so many of the legislators in the Senate and the Assembly that have talked about various pieces of this issue, I think you are going to see progress. But again, I think one of the important points is the state can't do it on its own. We need more from the federal government. We need more acceptance at the local level. You know, I noted that downstate, the Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso and city councilman Eric Bottcher are forming a coalition of local officials in New York City to really promote the notion of positive response to housing developments and housing programs. You know, there are issues out there, which I think can help people facing eviction. Another important issue that many legislators have talked about is providing more supportive legal services for lower-income people who may be facing eviction. So there's a lot on the agenda. I do think, especially given the fact that the problem has only gotten worse and it is an election year, which tends to mean that folks try to deliver more, I am optimistic we'll see some progress on the housing front this year in the Albany session. 

Speaking of which, I don't want to let you go without asking about the special election on Long Island. Your fellow Democrat Tom Suozzi was able to win back the former George Santos seat. What was your reaction to that? 

Well, I live in that district so I was pleased with the outcome, and certainly supported Tom Suozzi. And I think one of the parts of the story that's not getting enough credit is that the Democratic Party, the Democratic constituency, labor particularly, was really united in this campaign in a way that I haven't seen in a long time because there's often fractures and divisions within our party even here in Nassau County, which has contributed to a weak performance really for the past three years. So in the face of a very well organized Republican Party and you got to give credit to Joe Cairo, the Republican chair for really, really strengthening the Republican Party here. The fact that the Democrats were so united made a big difference. And Tom Suozzi was relentless in his campaigning. He never stopped. And although there was some concern that some of the national issues would break negatively for the Democrats here, I think using this as a bellwether, largely a suburban district that had a piece of Queens, I think it showed that when folks looked at the issues, looked at the candidates, the Democratic message when it's presented with a unified Democratic Party, is one that resonates with voters. So I think the takeaway is if you do it right, there's reason to be optimistic that we're going to do better than perhaps some folks are thinking we're going to do this year, certainly in terms of taking back the House of Representatives, having New York's own Hakeem Jeffries as the next speaker. You know, this race was an important building block to that happening.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.