the leading mayoral contenders virtually all endorse the idea that the city, by wielding zoning requirements and using its own financing, can conjure up more “affordable housing.” Christine Quinn’s website proclaims that “creating quality, affordable housing for all New Yorkers has always been a top priority” for her. Bill de Blasio wants to build 100,000 affordable homes for low-income New Yorkers over the next ten years; to preserve a similar number of existing housing units; to dedicate $1 billion from the city’s pension-fund investments to affordable housing; and to require developers in rezoned areas to include affordable housing in all new projects (or to contribute to a fund for such homes). Bill Thompson trumpets his use of city pension funds, during his tenure as comptroller, to help “finance the construction and preservation of over 43,000 units of affordable housing in New York City.” Republican Joe Lhota is an exception—but only for not saying much about the issue at all.
Such groupthink ignores the real cause of New York’s perennial housing crisis. The high rents and low vacancies aren’t the result of having too little subsidized housing. They’re the result of having too much.
In New York, it’s the norm, not the exception, for rental housing to be shielded from market forces. About a million rental units are covered by rent stabilization, which limits how sharply a landlord can increase rent each year, and another 38,000 or so by rent control, which dictates the rent itself. Federal housing vouchers pay the rent for 120,000 more units. The city’s vast public-housing system comprises 185,000 units (almost 18 percent of all the public housing in the country). All in all, some 1.3 million units—61 percent of occupied New York rentals, or 42 percent of all New York homes—are price-regulated in one way or another, according to the New York City Rent Guidelines Board. In that respect, New York differs radically from most American cities, where public-housing programs are small, subsidized construction is limited, and rent regulation is nonexistent. Many New Yorkers don’t realize how many apartments are price-controlled; as the same Zogby poll shows, fully a third of voters think that just 24 percent of the city’s housing is buffered from the market.