What Counts as Affordable Housing?

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Proposals are in for two new residential towers in Brooklyn Bridge Park. The towers will rise 15 and 31 stories and the money they generate will be used to help pay for the park, which is funded through a private-public partnership.

But Mayor Bill de Blasio’s requirement that 30 percent of the units be available as "affordable housing” has sparked furious debate in Brooklyn Heights.

Some residents don't want the affordable housing because they say it will mean less money for the park. Some are worried those units could bring down property values. And others just don't want the buildings at all and want to preserve the park.

At the heart of this debate is the question: what is affordable housing?

“That’s an interesting word, because housing is affordable to the people who live there,” said Max Weselcouch, director of the Moelis Institute for Affordable Housing Policy at New York University’s Furman Center. “Usually, when we talk about government-regulated affordable housing, it’s called subsidized, affordable housing.”

Those subsides can help lower rental costs so people earning low to moderate incomes can afford to live in buildings that otherwise would be too expensive.

How much a unit is subsidized — meaning who can afford to live there — depends on where the financing or government support comes, usually in the form of federal or state tax breaks, developer incentives, or building allowances. For example, federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits for developers generally require the buildings to set aside 20 percent of the units to families earning 50 percent of the area median income (AMI).

AMI? This is where it can get complicated.

HUD determines the AMI by calculating the median income in the five boroughs and nearby counties. Then, because New York City housing is so expensive, the agency increases that amount. In 2014, the AMI for a family of four is $83,900. If you have a larger household, the amount goes up; if you’re single, it goes down to $58,800.

Buildings then set their affordable housing levels based on a percentage of the AMI.

In the case of the two buildings in question at Brooklyn Bridge Park, the affordable units are for households earning between 80 percent and 165 percent of AMI. For a family of four, that is a yearly income between $67,120 to $138,345. Rents would range from $1,650 at the lower end and rise to $3,450 at the higher income level.

Is that affordable?

For many New Yorkers, including some who already live near the proposed towers, it’s not.

But if the units weren’t subsidized, the market rate prices could be even higher. That would place the units out of reach for these income levels the de Blasio administration classifies as moderate- to middle-income.

In fact, the administration’s plan to create or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next ten years expects that more than half — 58 percent of all those units will be for households making between 41 percent and 80 percent of the AMI, or between $41,951 and $67,120.

“If you define affordable housing as 50 percent of the median income, we’re talking about cops and teachers,” Rick Hills, a law professor at New York University's law school.

But when the word “affordable” gets attached to the word "housing," it can be misunderstood.

I don’t think people are that aware and the tendency is to associate it with public housing, which is a significant part of the housing stock, but not the only one,” said Alex Schwartz, professor of urban policy at the New School for Public Engagement.

Deborah VanAmerongen is an affordable housing policy advisor for the law firm Nixon Peabody and the former Commissioner for the New York State Division of Housing. She says she can drive around New York City and point out buildings that “you wouldn’t be able to pick it out that it’s affordable housing. It doesn’t look different from the things around it or the buildings privately financed that go for market rates.”

The Department of Housing and Urban Development defines housing as affordable when it is 30 percent or less of a family's income. Spending more than that is considered "rent burdened." According to a recent report from the Citizens Budget Commission, just over half of households in New York City are in this category. That number has risen from 41 percent in 2000.