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Redefining Affordable Housing: A Holistic Approach for a Resilient New York City

View of North Queens with Lower Manhattan in the Background

View of North Queens with Lower Manhattan in the Background Adobe Stock

In New York City, affordable housing is more than a matter of providing shelter—it’s about preserving the vibrancy and economic stability of our diverse communities. Yet, these communities are under enormous pressure with rents skyrocketing and vacancy rates at historic lows.

The affordable housing shortage poses an existential threat to our city’s economic vitality and overall well-being. When people can afford to live in the city, they contribute to the local economy by shopping at neighborhood businesses, dining at local restaurants, and participating in community activities. If housing remains unaffordable, residents will leave, taking the city's tax base and intellectual capital with them.

The conventional affordability benchmark—where housing costs do not exceed 30 percent of a household's income—falls short in capturing the complexities of living here. Income inequality, stagnant wages, and rising costs of essential services further complicate. We simply lack sufficient housing to meet current needs, let alone accommodate future growth.

Much of the public dialogue and investment focuses on the most vulnerable New Yorkers—and rightly so. Families with low incomes, veterans, seniors, and individuals experiencing homelessness often have the fewest options. This is where supportive housing programs with integrated social services are crucial. Enhanced access to mental health, substance abuse treatment programs, and work training can lead to better housing stability and health outcomes.

However, addressing the housing needs of our most vulnerable is just one piece of the puzzle. A truly vibrant New York requires affordability across income levels. A one-size-fits-all approach simply won’t work. While a family of four making $155,000 a year has relatively more options, finding affordable housing located close to transit, schools, and job centers is not easy and may affect their decision to remain in the city. We need more mixed-income housing units, where market-rate apartments subsidize those designated as affordable. We need to explore innovative micro-unit living in transit-oriented neighborhoods. We need to significantly invest in revitalizing existing neighborhoods with services and infrastructure that make them attractive places to live, work, and raise a family.

The path forward requires collaboration between the public sector, private developers, and community organizations. The city and state recognize this and have been working on several fronts to address the issue. New York State’s extension of the 421a program, which provides tax exemptions for developers to build mixed-income housing, will unlock the construction of thousands of new apartments. Similarly, the introduction of the 485x program and the lifting of the 12 FAR (floor area ratio) cap should help to increase the housing inventory. It will take time to understand how much housing will be unlocked, but it’s a critical step that sends a clear signal to communities that our legislators know the time for action is now.

The city is taking much-needed action, such as the new Green Fast Track for Housing, to streamline project approvals processes; however, these efforts need to be accelerated to allow builders to get shovels in the ground faster. And with the City of Yes for Housing Opportunity proposal now moving through public approvals, more regulatory barriers could be lifted to incentivize affordable housing and more housing in general.

The private sector has always been, and must remain, a critical partner in addressing the affordable housing crisis. Private developers and their partners design and build projects efficiently, bringing invaluable expertise, financing, and resources to the table while also taking on inherent development risks. Building strong, effective public private partnerships to address the crisis is a win-win scenario. Not only do residents gain access to affordable housing, but developers can use their return on investment to embark on subsequent projects to create more housing in the future.

This isn’t the first time New York has tried to address our housing shortage. And our efforts cannot end with implementing these policies and initiatives. But they are an important step in the right direction.

Looking ahead, I envision a city where affordable housing is not a scarce commodity. To achieve this, we must embrace innovation, foster collaboration, and reduce regulatory hurdles. Ultimately, this can lead to stronger and more resilient communities that preserve the dynamic and vibrant character that defines our great city. We can build a New York City that is equitable, thriving, and affordable.