The Disappearing 3-Bedroom: Larger Families Have Few Affordable Options in NYC

photo by Adi Talwar

This story ran on 

Christina Saldana’s 9-year-old daughter Hailey plays with a brown doll in the crawl space between the family’s sofa and the wall. She has a small pink box of toys crammed in the corner, and another next to the hot pink twin bed that the family of three shares most nights.

Saldana and her two daughters are cramped for space in their 650-square-foot studio apartment in the Bronx.

“The only door that I have right now is the bathroom,” Saldana, 27, says. “If I want to have a few minutes to myself, I would have to take a bubble bath.”

Saldana pays $1,100 for the studio in Parkchester, where the family has lived for four years. With her salary of $40,000, she wants to buy her girls more space as they get older. But she says there’s nothing she can find on the market that fits her needs.

New Yorkers have long lived in cramped quarters, from multiple generations of immigrants to large Orthodox families. But the rising rents that accompany gentrification in certain neighborhoods has caused even four-person families to squeeze into small spaces.

The price of a two-bedroom apartment in historically poor neighborhoods like Mott Haven in the Bronx has jumped 14 percent in the last year to a median of $1,850. Many working-class families are forced to make do in one bedrooms and studios. The city’s affordable housing program has tried to compensate for this in the last five years, building far more one bedroom and two bedroom affordable apartments than larger units. But some advocates say this in turn leaves larger families without options.

A golden era of two bedrooms

Of the 156,000 units of affordable housing built or preserved since 2014, over 100,000 units had two or fewer bedrooms, according to New York City’s OpenData. Almost 43,000 were two bedrooms. In comparison, only 14,700 three-bedrooms were built or preserved in the same timeframe, as were only 1,500 four bedrooms.

Developers in the city tend to favor studios and one-bedrooms, with over 25,000 units newly built since 2014, compared to just over 2,000 three-bedroom units built and only 88 four-bedrooms. On the other side, the city preserved over 30,000 two-bedroom units, over 27,000 one-bedrooms and only about 12,000 three-bedrooms.

In a neighborhood like the South Bronx, once known for its row houses that hosted generations of families, there are now predominantly apartments with two or fewer bedrooms. Data from the American Community Survey shows that the neighborhood lost about 400 units from with three or more bedrooms from 2010 to 2017. It gained 4,311 with two or fewer bedrooms. And over a thousand of those were studios.

Overall, the city lost over 23,000 apartments with four bedrooms or more.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan, Housing New York, largely mirrors the trends in the market when it comes to apartment size. The plan, which was released in 2014, focuses on housing needed by a growing demographic of one to two person households.  The report cites 1.9 million one- and two-person households residing in the city in 2012 (more than 60 percent of all the city’s households), but only 1.25 million studios and one-bedroom apartments.

Approximately 89 percent of all applications to the Housing Connect lottery system are submitted by 1-3 person sized households, according to the Department of Housing and Preservation. The mayor’s plan doesn’t explicitly say the city should create more one-bedrooms and studios, but it says “we need not only more housing, but also a mix of new housing types that reflects the diversity of New Yorkers’ needs.”

“We are dedicated to creating and preserving high quality affordable housing opportunities as needed for a range of household sizes,” HPD Press Secretary Juliet Pierre-Antoine says. “Our financing programs and guidelines support family-sized units as well as smaller units that respond to the city’s changing demographics.”

For families seeking larger, affordable units, it’s not just a question of what size bedrooms the city builds or preserves, but how eligibility is determined. A household of three or four people might want a three-bedroom apartment, but under the city’s affordable housing rules, they’re not going to get one, housing advocate Alexandra Fennell points out.

Families send in an application for affordable housing, and then Housing Connect, the city’s affordable housing portal, sorts them into the appropriate apartment size. Under the city guidelines, a range of three to six people can rent a three-bedroom apartment. But the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines say that two people to each room is usually an acceptable standard. The city’s policy can be flexible to the ages and makeup of families, but Fennell, who is a network director for Churches Aligned for Fair Housing, says HPD usually sticks to the two-per-room policy.

“A family of four does not get a three bedroom,” Fennell says. “So even though there is a great need for apartments of families of three and four people, when we’re building the apartments under MIH (Mandatory Inclusionary Housing), a three-bedroom apartment is most likely going to go to a family of five or six.”

The city gives guidelines to affordable housing developers on what subsidized apartments should look like, including number of bedrooms. Some developers say that there is less of an incentive to build big than there used to be. Under term sheets for programs like ELLA (Extremely Low and Low Income Affordability), HPD says a developer must devote at least 30 percent of the proposed units to apartments with two bedrooms or more. But that mandate used to be 50 percent, says Aaron Koffman, a principal at Hudson Inc., a Manhattan-based for profit development company.

The most recent guidelines give developers a lot of flexibility. Under the ELLA term sheets, developers can’t build more than 25 percent studios, but there is no specification about how many three- or four -bedroom apartments they have to build.

Koffman, who oversees all of Hudson’s affordable units, says it’s good that the guidelines are flexible.

“Generally, every building succeeds with a nice mix of studios, ones, twos and threes,” Koffman says. “It’s great to have children in the hallways. There are also people who are just single individuals.”

But advocates like Alicia Boyd with the Brooklyn Anti Gentrification Network say that market-rate developers, who build a segment of affordable housing to receive tax breaks from the city, will try and make these apartments as small as they can.

“The other wealthy people don’t want to mingle with the poor people so they put them in the corner somewhere,” Boyd says. “And they make it studios and one bedrooms so there will be no children, because children are more visible.”

Developers do have a financial incentive to keep the bedroom count low when building affordable housing. Generally, the city distributes larger subsidies for larger projects, which Koffman says is usually based on the number of units. The city itself also places a great emphasis on unit count. Each milestone in the mayor’s housing plan involves a number of units, from over 34,000 units built last year to de Blasio’s goal of 200,000 by 2024. Some say this might incentivize the city and developers to build quantity over size.

“A hundred square foot box could hold many more apartments if all those apartments were studios than if they were a mix of studio, ones, twos, and threes,” Koffman says. “But the city knows that, that’s why they put a limit on the number of studios you can have.”

In terms of cost to build, Koffman says two- and three-bedrooms hit the sweet spot. They don’t require two bathrooms like a four-bedroom apartment does, and you get more bang for your buck than, say, building two one-bedrooms, where architects would also have to budget two kitchens and two living rooms.

“It’s not like it’s just a slam dunk that smaller units are the way to go,” Koffman says. “Architecturally, the buildings don’t lay out well. You want space. You could do studio, studio studio, but that means one window for every apartment, and it could be structurally difficult to do that.”

The challenge of more bedrooms 

Larger apartments, however, don’t present cost advantages to builders. Affordable four bedrooms are a doozy to build, says Stephanie Sosa, who represents nonprofit affordable housing developers for the Association for Housing and Neighborhood Development.  They must have two bathrooms and they must be above 950 square feet, among other costly requirements.

“The demand is there,” Sosa says. “But because of how expensive it is to develop these units and maintain them, it just makes it that much more complicated.”

Plus, information on the rent and the city subsidies provided stops at three bedrooms on the city’s affordable housing term sheets, leaving developers with little information on the financial burden of a four-bedroom apartment.

“The city is basically saying, ‘This is what you have to develop and you don’t have to go beyond that,’” Sosa says.

Fennell says there’s another problem with big apartments in affordable housing: people can’t afford them. Families of four or more must have significantly higher incomes to qualify for affordable housing.

This is a problem for Juan Cano, a contractor who is the only source of income for his family of four. He, his wife and his two teenage kids share a one-bedroom apartment in the South Bronx. “Privacy, it just goes out the window,” he says.

He pays $750 a month. His kids share a bunk bed in the main room, and he and his wife sleep on the pullout sofa. They make it work, Cano says. But he has been applying via housing lotteries to get into two different affordable housing complexes in the South Bronx. His income doesn’t qualify for either.

“I fall right underneath the bare minimum,” Cano says. “$30,000 a year doesn’t qualify me for much.”

In the same affordable housing complexes, Christina Saldana’s income could have earned her a one-bedroom. But her family is too large. Because she has two daughters, the city sorted her into the two-bedroom bracket, where she makes too little to qualify.

“I feel stuck,” Saldana says. “I’m doing all the right things, and now I don’t know what to do.”

Big families left in the lurch

Despite an average family size of about three people, most housing advocates and community boards say that there are still big families in the city. And they are the most in need of housing.

“There are generations of families that are actually living together in a building,” says Marcela Mitaynes, the chair of the housing committee on Community Board 7 in Brooklyn, which represents Sunset Park. “We’re seeing the displacement, the harassment, the pricing that is separating families.”

Sunset Park is home to a large population of immigrant families, because rent has historically been cheaper and apartments typically larger. Mitaynes herself moved to the neighborhood in 1979 with her father and her grandparents, immigrants from Peru.

They had all been living in a cramped one-bedroom in Hell’s Kitchen, she says. But in Sunset Park, they had room to breathe. Soon her aunts and uncles came from Peru. After her daughter was born, four generations of her family all lived in the same dwelling.

“We really made this our new home,” she says.

But now landlords are dividing these large homes. Apartments that were once four bedrooms get broken into smaller units.

The city’s Department of Buildings keeps track of the number of permits issued where a building increases its number of units but doesn’t add any square feet, essentially when larger apartments are converted into multiple smaller units. In Sunset Park, 44 buildings were issued this kind of permit in the last five years. In New York City, this happened 728 times.

According to the American Community Survey, Sunset Park lost over 1,300 three- or more bedroom apartments, including over 907 units with six bedrooms or more. It gained over 2,608 two-bedroom units. Despite losing larger units, Sunset Park’s average family size actually grew from 3.67 people to 3.85 people.

As fewer large units become available, big families are left to particularly rough conditions. Single people start families in their current small apartments, assuming that as their family grows, they’ll find the means to move to a bigger place. But with rising rents and fewer large apartments available, they’re stuck.

‘They just want us to leave’

This happened to Nora Huertero, 43, who now has three children in the one-bedroom Sunset Park apartment she and her sister moved into in 1995. She and her husband sleep on the sofa in the living room. Her 14-year-old daughter Samantha and 8-year-old son Nathan share a wide room that also doubles as the family’s closet and their 20-year-old son Donato Huertero who attends university has his own room.

The space is tight but they manage, Huertero says. More harrowing than sharing space is the treatment from their landlord, who Huertero’s family says ignores repairs and sends them false eviction notices. Both of her young children have developed asthma because of the mold and cockroach infestation in the apartment. All the while, the rent continues to go up every year, despite the apartment being rent stabilized.

“They just want us to leave,” Samantha says.

But Huertero, who works long hours as a housekeeper, pays $1,125 a month for rent, which is about half what the average two-bedroom in Sunset Park costs. RIght now, there’s no world in which she and her family can move out, she says.

“It used to be that if you were working, you had enough money, but now it’s nothing,” Huererto says. “Even when you have kids, you don’t have extra money to do the stuff they need.”

Laura Espinoza, a mom of four in Sunset Park, says she thinks it’s unfair that smaller families are given more options and cheaper rent from the city, because for big families, finding an apartment on the market is more difficult.

Espinoza’s family was evicted by their private landlord three years ago, and it was nearly impossible to find a new landlord that would be accepting of her twin babies. She says that property owners and management didn’t want young children in their dwellings, perhaps because of noise, or because families with young children would likely stay for longer, forcing landlords to increase rent at a slower rate. Just six days before she was to be evicted, Espinoza found an apartment. They began moving their things in, but then the landlord showed up and saw her holding her two baby sons.

“We lied to him, we didn’t say we had two more kids,” Espinoza says. “When he saw them, he took our stuff out and said “no.’”

“That night we cried a lot.”

She found an apartment in the eleventh hour. The rent was month to month and was the entirety of her husband’s paycheck, but the space is large enough for her twin sons, who are both autistic, to roam and play freely. Espinoza said her landlord is kind and she and her husband have built up a good relationship by fixing up the apartment, but, after three years with no official lease, her family’s future always remains uncertain.

Money is tight for the immigrant family — Espinoza is from Ecuador and her husband from Mexico. But she says that she isn’t looking for cheaper rent, just a future where she doesn’t have to worry month-to-month if her building will be sold by a private landlord. So when an affordable housing complex was proposed in Sunset Park last year, she advocated for the project to be approved, and later tried to enter the lottery for a unit there.

“It’s just for the guarantee,” Espinoza says. “I don’t ask for free. My mom taught us you have to work for what you want.”

An eight-story building that will incorporate 49 units of affordable housing and a Sunset Park library broke ground in February, but Espinoza and her family won’t be moving in.

Because her oldest son is 18, her family of six only qualifies for a four-bedroom. There are none in the new complex. She asked advocates, community board members and officials from the city for help, the only advice someone from HPD gave her was, “Maybe you could take out your son.”

“I said, ‘What?’” Espinoza says. “I know in this country, when you are 18 years old, you move out from your family, but my country is different. How can I take out my son? How can you say that?”

Finding the right mix

While the lack of four bedrooms plagues large families in Sunset Park, the presence of four bedrooms created controversy in another part of Brooklyn. After Mayor Michael Bloomberg rezoned an eight-block parcel of land at the cross section of Bed Stuy and Williamsburg called the Broadway Triangle in 2009, developer United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg sought to build almost 300 units of affordable housing on the land. The problem: The bid included an unprecedented number of three- and four-bedroom apartments.

Advocates, including Fennell, said the plans violated the Fair Housing Act and took their case to court, stalling the development until last year. Neighborhood groups say the large apartments targeted Hassidic families and left out the large population of black and Hispanic families also living in the neighborhood.

“They were going to build a disparate amount of large units, which through the lottery system are really only available to uber, ultra-Orthodox families,” Fennell says.

The case was settled with a fair amount of coordination between all three groups, and now there will be a mix 380 affordable studios, one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom units built on Broadway Triangle. But the controversy opened up a dialogue about apartment size.

For Mitaynes, Broadway Triangle doesn’t mean that four-bedroom apartments shouldn’t exist, it just shows that communities where affordable housing is being built should have more power in deciding what that housing looks like.

“I definitely believe in public pressure, and that being able to work,” Mitaynes says. “But it’s not easy.”

Community Boards do have some say in the kind of units that makeup affordable housing bids in their neighborhood, at least if the building proposed is on public land. Beyond the city’s guidelines, developers can work with community boards to find the right mix of apartment sizes.

With the most recent affordable housing development in Sunset Park, Mitaynes says the board negotiated with the Brooklyn Public Library and the Fifth Avenue Committee (FAC) to include a greater mix of two- to three-bedrooms. The development was originally set to have 65 units. Mitaynes says the board negotiated that down to 49 units, to accommodate some larger families.

Last Spring, Community Board 2 in the Bronx declined to support an affordable housing development proposed by Acacia Network, a housing developer that has hundreds of contracts with the city, because it only offered one-bedroom or studio apartments.

“It’s a shame that they’re from our community (Acacia) and still don’t understand our needs,” says Community Board Chair Roberto Crespo. “We have big families.”

Lymaris Albors, Executive Vice President at Acacia, says she wasn’t aware of the board’s distaste for the project, for which she says very preliminary plans were presented at a housing committee meeting in March. She says the building is on hold, and could include a greater amount of two- and three- bedroom apartments, but Acacia’s large portfolio also takes into account New York’s aging population. Albors says if a building has predominantly one bedrooms and studios, it is likely geared towards seniors.

But she and Koffman also say that when Acacia or Hudson present affordable housing plans to community boards, the boards often do ask for a few more large units.

“They’re always going to ask for twos and threes because that’s what community needs,” Albors said.

Saldana and Espinoza both say they’ve tried to reach out to elected officials about their housing situations. Saldana called Mayor de Blasio’s office. Espinosa says she’s been in touch with several members of her community board, and they’ve told her there’s little they can do for her. But both say they won’t stop trying.

For Saldana, the situation is urgent. Three years ago, she put her name into the city’s Housing Connect lottery for an affordable apartment complex being built on West 42nd Street. She thought that this year, when the complex was set to be finished, she would make the income requirement. So when this year came around, she didn’t renew her lease.

She was wrong. HPD told her the minimum income to qualify for a two bedroom was $68,675. Now she’s scrambling.

“The uncertainty kills,” Saldana says. “I have nightmares of like, where I’m going to go.”

Espinoza says she has some hope that the people in her neighborhood will start advocating for big families, so she can keep all of her kids under the same roof for as long as possible.

“We don’t want very much,” she says. “We just want an apartment.”

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