Making ‘affordable’ housing actually affordable


Looking to rent a two-bedroom apartment in Nassau County? Expect to pay a little more than $2,000 per month.
Except for many, that expectation just isn’t realistic.
To afford an apartment like that with healthy finances — meaning spending no more than 30 percent of your total income on housing expenses — a tenant would need to make over $39 per hour, or $81,400 per year. Even if that cost were split between two people, both would have to earn about $5 per hour above minimum wage in Nassau County, and work full-time jobs.
This might seem like a new problem to many, but affordable housing has been trouble for a long time. And we’re still waiting for the right legislative recipe to help get us on the right track.
And it needs to come soon. The annual report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition reveals that while just 20 percent of Nassau households are rentals, that still accounts for more than 86,000 units. The typical hourly wage of these renters, however, is just above minimum wage, meaning they need to rent for much less — like $800.
Paying for housing, for the very people who need it, would require them to work 2.6 full-time jobs — quite literally nearly every waking hour. Only a few places in New York are worse: Rockland and Putnam counties, along with Staten Island would require three full-time jobs, and Suffolk is in the same boat as Nassau.
Affordable housing means something we can pay for while still having money left over for all the other necessities in life. You know, like food, medical care, getting around. To make that work best, the federal government has determined that just 30 percent of a household’s income should go to housing expenses.
Unfortunately, what people are making — and what they are asked to pay to live somewhere like Nassau County — just isn’t adding up. And it needs to.
Yet it’s not from a lack of effort. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have made genuine efforts to create more affordable living. Their ideas for ways to achieve that goal might be different, but the outcome has been the same: affordable housing becomes mandatory in multifamily projects. And that’s good.
What isn’t good is that once we hear “affordable,” we think the problem is solved. But it’s not — the variables used to determine affordability are far too broad, and cross over too much disparity in income. That means that wealthier households artificially inflate the income of a region, meaning that “affordable” rents are much higher rate than they should be.
For example, Nassau’s area median income is $129,900 — joined with Suffolk as the highest in New York. But that calculation encompasses 450,000 households — which include a handful whose income is well above $25 million.
Most households are nowhere near that. Not even close. So trying to determine affordability with those kinds of incomes just isn’t fair.
If we want to truly address affordable housing, area median income calculations are precisely where we need to start. These variables are far too broad, and need to be far more community-based. Real estate brokers rely heavily on “comps” — comparable prices of similar homes in the same neighborhood. Imagine if those comps were countywide. The housing market would grind to a halt.
Sure, one alternative to renting is buying. Owning a home is the dream of so many — but is not always achievable. Housing prices have outpaced wages, and let’s not forget rising mortgage interest rates brought on by inflation.
A solid economy depends on affordability, and there is no greater potential hit to affordability than housing costs. As we get ready to cast our ballots, choosing who will represent us locally, in Albany and in Washington, let’s look for the best ideas to keep Nassau not only beautiful, but affordably livable.