By Sam Bojarski and Leonardo March
In March 2020, the typically furious pace of apartment leasing activity in New York City slowed to a crawl. The pace has since picked up, helped along by property owners in neighborhoods like Flatbush, home to thousands of Haitian-Americans, offering steep rent discounts on luxury apartments.
In new buildings like 733 Rogers Ave., a 16-unit property that opened in 2019, listings have advertised two months of free rent. PLG at 123 Linden Blvd., which offers monthly rents of $2,830 for a studio, has advertised two months of free rent this year, as well. But these deals hardly come close to meeting the needs of some neighborhood residents, including many Haitian-Americans families in various income levels, advocates say.
“Someone who’s working as a nursing aide making a minimum wage?” said Yves Vilus, executive director of the Erasmus Neighborhood Federation, which counsels about 200 tenants each week, mostly people from the Caribbean. “Impossible. That’s why people are doubling or tripling up.”
Rising rents and lost incomes during the pandemic have already driven some Haitian-American tenants to look for housing out of state. And, Vilus said, the community members who fulfill essential roles as nursing aides, security guards and grocery workers are the ones struggling to find housing. These workers were also more likely to lose income due to the pandemic.
Even some people in professional, white-collar jobs have difficulty meeting the income requirements to apply for housing in many of these buildings. New York City considers as rent-burdened anyone who spends more than 50% of their pre-tax monthly income on rent. By this measure, a tenant would need to earn $50,280 to afford the median rent in Flatbush.
“I can’t believe the number of new buildings that are going up,” Vilus said. “The way the economy is going most people cannot afford them, this is outrageous.”
For the past decade, high-rise apartments have been replacing single-family homes and empty lots in Flatbush, leading to an influx of professionals in higher-income jobs to the neighborhood. Increasingly, these are white professionals moving into a historically Afro-Caribbean area.
These changes are “giving the neighborhood a new face,” said Dave Romelus, 21, of Flatbush. “I watch it happen too fast.”
In January 2021, rents throughout New York City’s five boroughs declined at the fastest year-over-year pace on record. Data published by real estate company StreetEasy showed a monthly median asking rent of $2,095 across all rental units in Flatbush, a 12% year-over-year decline from 2020.
A nursing assistant paying this rent and earning the monthly median salary of $36,370 would have to spend 69% of her income on rent, making them rent-burdened by New York City measures.
The initial decline in rental activity prompted a flood of leasing activity over the winter months. But by and large, the rent declines and steep discounts at some buildings have not benefited working-class New Yorkers, including Haitian-Americans.
‘There aren’t many options’
East Flatbush resident Lutchi Gayot, who was born and raised in the neighborhood, has seen some unprecedented shifts in the rental market this past year. One friend who lived in Crown Heights, Gayot said, moved to Manhattan’s Upper East Side in recent months after finding a better deal there than in Brooklyn.
In Flatbush, property owners have lowered rents for their empty units, but Gayot said neighborhood residents aren’t scooping them up.
“It’s still too expensive for people to bite, in the Flatbush section,” said Gayot, a contractor who works with real estate companies. “But then you have the younger people who keep coming in with money, and they’re the ones who are buying them.”
As a staff attorney with Legal Services NYC, Andrea Alajbegovic works with about two dozen clients, most from central Brooklyn and East New York, earning between $30,000 and $40,000 per year on average. Alajbegovic has hardly even broached the subject of rent declines with clients, she said, because median rents of more than $2,000 are still beyond what they can pay.
“If they were to leave or if they were to be evicted by their landlord, there aren’t many options for them that would be considered affordable,” said Alajbegovic.
Rent declines in Brooklyn as a whole have been more modest than in Manhattan, StreetEasy reported. By the end of 2020, rent in Manhattan had fallen 12.7% year over year, while Brooklyn saw about half that decline, or 6.3%.
Also, more professionals in their 20s or 30s are moving into neighborhoods or apartment buildings they were priced out of prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to media reports.
Calls new affordability requirements
For Alajbegovic, an optimal affordable housing plan means having rents that reflect neighborhood residents’ true ability to pay. The rezoning plans that the de Blasio administration has put into place since 2016 have not helped low-income tenants, she said.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development considers a single New Yorker whose income ranges from $42,636 to $66,880 to be low-income.
On average, the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) rezoning program has served New Yorkers earning between 40% to 115% of the area median income (AMI), which is $83,600 for a single person.
But these income guidelines excluded certain New Yorkers, including single-parent households, seniors living on a fixed income, health aides and taxi drivers, according to a February 2021 report from the Community Service Society, which studies housing in New York City. The report also said it is no coincidence that these industries are disproportionately staffed by people of color, the report also said.
“It’s incumbent on whoever is taking Mayor de Blasio‘s place to take up tangible solutions that are going to be influenced by low income communities and that are going to be led by tenants,” Alajbegovic said.
Part of the solution, Gayot said, should involve helping homeowners in the majority-Black neighborhood access the financing and skills needed to develop their own affordable housing.
But he also said income requirements should be adjusted for newly built housing, so that existing area residents can afford the rent. Census Bureau data suggests that per capita income, or average income per person, in Flatbush is $35,267.
“It just simply doesn’t fit the neighborhood’s income,” Gayot said. “Post-COVID it definitely doesn’t fit the neighborhood’s income because these are the communities that have been hit the hardest.”