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

photo by Adi Talwar

Screen Shot 2020-07-10 at 1.21.14 PM

This story ran on July 2, 2019 in City Limits

Here’s an excerpt:

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.”

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