The following was written for the Long Island Press, published on January 29, 2016. You can read the original here. The piece was also translated into Spanish by La Tribuna USA. You can read the translated text here.
Long Island’s housing options are woefully inadequate, yet we’re doing little to address this ever-growing problem.
If you ask LI’s developers, they would say that the answer is the creation of developments that “meet the needs of seniors who are downsizing and young adults looking for more affordable rentals, as well as to create ‘vibrant’ destination communities that attract workers and retain young people,” as representative of Uniondale-based RXR Realty, Virginia-based AvalonBay Communities, Inc. and The Engel Burman Group in Garden City told the Long Island Regional Planning Council at a recent meeting in Hempstead.
That sounds good to any rational resident. On paper.
But nobody is talking about the rents in these developments, nor the marked disconnect between what is getting approved and built, as well as what this region truly needs to thrive: high-paying economic opportunities for the region’s eager and educated younger workforce, and housing they can actually afford.
The new rentals are telling. Avalon Bay claims it wants to provide housing options that will keep the Island’s millennials here. It charges $1,840 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in Coram, $2,670 a month for a one bedroom in Garden City or $2,748 a month for a one bedroom in Long Beach.
These rents are higher than most single-family home mortgages. For Avalon Pines in Coram to be considered “affordable,” which means less than 20 percent of the household income going toward rent, its occupants would need a combined income of $110,000 per year. And that’s to live in Coram, where the closest Long Island Rail Road train station is roughly six miles away.
Statistically, it’s unlikely that workers residing that far out east in Suffolk County would utilize the LIRR anyway to commute to Manhattan, but the developers still call it a walkable, transit-oriented community regardless. Avalon Huntington Station, about a mile from the train station, is charging $2,285 a month, which would require a joint salary of $135,000 for it to be considered “affordable.”
In 2013, the average rent in Suffolk for a one-bedroom was $1,490 a month, according to The New York Times, while the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says that the average fair market rent for a one-bedroom is $1,324. For the Nassau-Suffolk region, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom is $1,437. The average median family income for the region in 2015 was $109,000.
In western Suffolk, housing prices declined 12 percent in the wake of the recession from 2008 through 2013, while rents in one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments rose 19 percent. Nassau saw even larger price disparities. Housing prices declined by 7 percent, but rents went up 27 percent for one-bedroom apartments, and 28 percent for two-bedrooms. From 2011 to 2013, Long Island’s rents increased between 7 percent and 10 percent, yet housing prices only grew 3 percent to 4 percent.
Not to pick on Avalon Bay, but it is just one example of how many developers tout their desire to supply what the Island needs, yet the economics prevent them from doing it because it doesn’t make fiscal sense. To acknowledge the need for affordable workforce housing for the next generation and the elderly, while charging $1,840 a month to live 60 miles from New York City is ludicrous.
Compare this situation to Queens. As the MNS Real Estate Services reported in December 2015, average rent in Astoria, complete with easy subway access and a more vibrant neighborhood than most suburban areas, was a mere $2,057 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, while Forest Hills and Rego Park came close with $2,014 and $2,038 respectably. Although familial ties to LI are strong for many young people who grew up here, is it worth their paying $750 a month more to live in Nassau County instead of renting in Queens, or should they just pay the $20 train ticket on the weekends to visit their parents?
Herein lies the problem. Developers and their vested nonprofit buddies often get so caught up in the convenient narrative that, yes, Long Island needs more multifamily housing projects, yet few actually build them at price points to suit the needs of our many young people who want to move out of their childhood homes. The Island needs more apartments, but few builders, if any, are actually building them for the markets they claim to be supplying.
Of course, builders don’t have it easy. From NIMBY protests over community fears that are sometimes legitimate and often imagined, LI’s development climate is difficult and easy at the same time.
But to grandstand to a regional planning group about what we need is wrong considering what they are providing. The LIRPC should be telling developers what housing options Long Island needs, not the other way around. For too long, planning efforts on the Island have been spearheaded by vested interests and specialized groups instead of serious data-backed study driven by public participation.
Further, the LIRPC should be taking more of a leadership role in confronting the economics of why, exactly, many of these developers are building projects with rents well above the median rent levels in Suffolk.
Instead of focusing on squeezing every bit of density into the last bastions of open space on the Island, the emphasis should be on how to repurpose our existing, underutilized disturbed sites to meet our region’s needs. The LIRPC must usher LI into a new economy that allows for sustainable economic growth by unifying the patchwork system of our Industrial Development Agencies, and stop trying to compete with Manhattan and the outer boroughs for apartments, and complement what the city has to offer.
By playing to Long Island’s strengths, instead of trying to urbanize Nassau and Suffolk here and there, we will get the jobs we need, and the housing options will follow.