Looking for an 'affordable' 2-bedroom apartment for a family? The odds are against you.

 Mayor Eric Adams has highlighted the significant increase in subsidized housing units being constructed for low- and middle-income renters in New York City as a critical part of his strategy to retain families in the five boroughs. He expressed concern over Black and brown families leaving the city due to unaffordability, emphasizing the need to stabilize the middle class. However, an analysis by Gothamist of city data reveals that nearly 70% of the approximately 24,000 subsidized, affordable units built or financed citywide since Adams assumed office consist of studios and one-bedroom apartments, which are not suitable for accommodating families due to their size.

The prevalence of these smaller units is particularly high in areas of the city with a greater proportion of families, such as the north Bronx and eastern Queens, based on census data. Consequently, the many families applying for affordable housing each year have a minimal chance of securing an apartment large enough to accommodate them. In some parts of the city, such as southern Queens, studios and one-bedroom apartments make up more than 90% of the total units under construction, despite the average household size in neighborhoods like Richmond Hill and Ozone Park being approximately four people.

City council members are expressing apprehension that the housing program is not fully meeting the needs of their communities amid New York City's most severe housing shortage in over fifty years. According to the city's latest housing survey, less than 1% of apartments priced below $2,400 a month were vacant and available for rent last year.  

“It sounds really great to maximize the number of [affordable] units that you build, but oftentimes you do that at the expense of two- and three-bedroom apartments,” said Councilmember Eric Dinowitz, who represents Bedford Park, Norwood, and other northwest Bronx neighborhoods where 76% of subsidized units are studios and one-bedroom apartments.

“They’re not meeting the needs of the blocks on which they’re built,” he said.

The Department of Housing Preservation and Development oversees the development of affordable housing in the city and says the demand for smaller units in the city is being met. The mayor’s office declined a request for comment, but Charles Lutvak, a City Hall spokesperson, pointed to the mayor’s proposals for building more housing in every neighborhood.

The term “affordable housing” refers to government-subsidized units where rents are capped at around 30% of qualifying tenants’ incomes. Tenants win the opportunity to rent apartments that match their income levels through a lottery system.

HPD said 889,000 households are currently registered for the affordable housing lottery. Just under 178,000 of these households are families of three or more.

A spokesperson for the department said the share of studios and one-bedroom apartments reflects the fact that 80% of those who register for the city’s affordable housing lottery live in single- and two-person households.

“HPD financed the most new affordable housing in the city's history in 2023, including homes across a wide range of incomes and sizes — from formerly homeless individuals in need of supportive services to working parents hoping to raise their families here,” said agency spokesperson William Fowler in an emailed statement.

One-fifth of the buildings listed in the city’s housing data provide what’s known as supportive housing for formerly homeless New Yorkers with mental illness and other special needs. Homelessness is at an all-time high in the city. Supportive housing units are typically designed for one person, which partly explains the preponderance of smaller units subsidized by the city.

“It’s a continually vexing issue: Which of these things do we need more of?” said Citizens Housing and Planning Council Executive Director Howard Slatkin, who worked at the city's planning department for over two decades. Family-sized affordable units were also in short supply during the Bill de Blasio administration, as City Limits has reported.

“Like so many things in housing, we end up answering like it’s an either-or question, but there’s such a need for both,” Slatkin said.

Mara Davis, a spokesperson for the City Council, said increasing affordable housing of all types is a top priority.

"These goals don't need to be pitted against one another, but simply speak to how urgently we must expand housing production overall diversely and equitably," Davis said in an emailed statement.

A tight squeeze

An elegant, white partition with floral cutouts hangs across the middle of Andrea Acosta’s well-lit but cramped one-bedroom apartment in an unsubsidized building in Jackson Heights, Queens.

On one side of the divider is the bed she shares with one of her two sons, ages 5 and 9. On the other is where her husband sleeps on a pull-out couch with their other child. Acosta’s 82-year-old mother stays in the bedroom. Their rent is $1,250 a month.

“It’s a little complicated, but you get used to the situation because there’s no other way,” she said in Spanish. “The rents are too expensive and even though you want a bigger apartment, you can’t.”

Last year, 8% of all New York City households were living in crowded conditions, with more than two people per bedroom or studio apartment, according to the city's housing survey. In immigrant families like Acosta’s, the rate was 12%, or 168,300 households, the report found.

“Many people are in my situation,” she said. “We live in a space like this because that’s all there is.”

In Jackson Heights, studios and one-bedroom apartments account for 60% of new affordable housing.

Councilmembers and community groups say the families they represent are being left behind by the private market, where developers are failing to build enough “family-sized” housing and opting instead for smaller, more profitable units that are easier to construct under current regulations.

Given the scale of the housing crisis, the city’s affordable housing program hasn’t filled the gap, even as it subsidizes more new construction than ever.

Critics point to the term sheets the Department of Housing Preservation and Development issues for low-income housing projects, which provide guidance for developers on meeting the program’s criteria. While those documents give detailed instructions on how to set rents for subsidized units and spell out loan requirements, they only suggest that developers make at least 30% of their units have two or more bedrooms.

Councilmember Althea Stevens, who represents Highbridge, Morrisania, and other Bronx neighborhoods, said she’s often seen HPD and developers blame each other for the lack of family-sized affordable housing units.

“Both of them are playing a game,” she said. “When I'm speaking to developers, they're like, ‘Well, this is what HPD wants.’ And then HPD is like, ‘No that's what the developer wants.' It’s a lot of pointing fingers.”

In Stevens’ district, 77% of affordable housing units built within the last two years are studios and one-bedrooms. She believes HPD is prioritizing the total number of units over a diverse housing stock that would better meet the people's needs.

“If HPD has a building that has 50 units as opposed to them having 45 because they're two- and three-bedrooms, they have a higher number of affordable housing units they can say that they built that year,” she said.

The government-subsidized housing also often prices out low-income families hit hardest by the city’s apartment shortage, data shows. New Yorkers with earnings below the median income level don’t qualify for much of the new affordable housing. Income thresholds vary from development to development, but applicants have to prove they earn enough to pay the rent.

A white, paper partition divides Andrea Acosta's living room in Jackson Heights, Queens where she and her family of five live.

Acosta said she’d like to keep her children in Jackson Heights, where they go to school, live near friends and see their pediatrician. But in her search for larger accommodations, the two-bedroom apartments she’s found in the neighborhood range in rent from $2,400 to $2,800 a month, roughly twice as much as her family pays now. Five of the apartments were in the city’s affordable housing lottery at a building down the street last year.

It’s more than Acosta's family can afford on the roughly $30,000 a year her husband earns at a Manhattan deli. They wouldn’t have qualified for an affordable housing unit based on their income.

Acosta now hopes to apply for a spot in new income-restricted apartments planned for Willets Point, with help from the organization Queens Community House. The massive project near Citi Field is receiving city funds and tenants will be selected through the housing lottery.

Compact apartments have their benefits too

Councilmember Carlina Rivera, who represents the Lower East Side, said her constituents appreciate the smaller units the city has built in her district, where 79% of recently constructed affordable housing units are studios and one-bedroom apartments.

“With a higher-than-average district population of senior citizens, we can certainly benefit from one-bedroom and studio apartments that offer more accessible housing,” Rivera told Gothamist in an email.

A surge of new housing for single- and two-person households could also create a release valve to ease the pressure on families searching for more spacious housing, according to some housing policy experts and developers.

Kirk Goodrich is president of Monadnock Development, which builds affordable housing. As an example, he pointed to a common, if not awkward, living arrangement in the five boroughs: young professionals sharing a multi-bedroom apartment with roommates that might otherwise house a family. A group of single adults can typically outbid or offer more appeal to landlords than a family with children and only one or two income earners, he said.

If smaller units are added to the market, the theory goes, larger apartments could be freed up for those who need them most.

We're just regular people who just want to raise our family.
Bedford-Stuyvesant resident Larry Lopes

Goodrich said developers of subsidized housing are merely responding to the demographics of affordable housing lottery applicants. He shared a breakdown of unit compositions in 21 residential projects built by Monadnock over the past 13 years. Just over half of the 4,343 units were studios and one-bedrooms, 39% were two-bedrooms, and about 9% were three-bedrooms.

“By the city’s housing policy, we can only rent to people who come through the lottery,” Goodrich said. “The reality is, if you still have 80% of the applicants [as] small households, we have to be responsive to them.”

Rivera acknowledged the limitations of the housing being built in her district. “The challenge remains that with these smaller units, working families cannot grow on the Lower East Side,” she said.

A regular life

Larry Lopes grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in Flatbush, Brooklyn, with his parents and brother and now lives in a two-bedroom basement apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant with his wife and 1-year-old daughter for which they pay just under $2,000 a month. But he said their landlord told them they have to be out by August.

Lopes works as a translator; his wife is a teacher. They’re now looking for another two-bedroom for around $2,500 a month and said they’ve submitted about 50 applications to the city’s affordable housing lottery, which offers units priced for middle-income families. He said he and his wife recently began earning about $160,000 a year.

“It’s just a longshot,” Lopes said. “I don’t really expect it to happen in time.”

He said rising rents will mean fewer families like his will be able to afford the life in the city he had as a child. “There's so many people that do all these smaller jobs that don't make a $100,000 a year,” he said. “We're just regular people who just want to raise our family, live a regular life.”

Larry Lopes, his wife, and baby have to move out of their two-bedroom apartment in Bed-Stuy later this year. They're struggling to find a similarly sized apartment they can afford.

Some local elected officials, community groups, and policy experts said it’s up to the government to step up where the private market is retreating and prevent low- and middle-income New Yorkers from being pushed out of the city.

“A lot of families feel like they’re locked into tight spaces and feel they have no options where they can go,” said Barika Williams, executive director at the nonprofit Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. “How many people, when faced with that, are choosing to leave New York City because they can’t afford it?”

Policymakers and housing advocates have proposed various strategies to fuel construction, ease costs and reduce the burden on families.

The city’s Department of Planning said its ongoing push to allow new housing in lower-density areas — including Whitestone in Queens, South Brooklyn, and much of Staten Island — through changes to the city’s zoning codes could yield more family-sized homes and smaller units.

But the plan requires approval from the City Council and faces longstanding “Not In My Backyard” opposition in many of those neighborhoods.

The city really sort of feels frozen in amber.
Ben Furnas, Park Slope resident and former Bill de Blasio adviser

Mayor Adams, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, and an array of housing development groups are also urging state lawmakers to replace an expired tax break program for developers known as 421-a that mandates some new income-restricted units.

At the same time, progressive elected officials and housing advocates are proposing a new “social housing” authority to create publicly owned mixed-income housing designed to meet community needs rather than increase developer profits.

If any of the ideas succeed, they’d likely have major consequences for New York City families.

Ben Furnas, a former adviser and policy administrator under Mayor de Blasio who is now active in the housing advocacy group Open New York, lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Park Slope with his wife and two children.

He said it’s hard to find a bigger place with a decent rent, even though he considers his family “very well off.” He noted he wants the city to build more housing of all sizes.

“We've seen very slow or no housing growth, and the city really sort of feels frozen in amber,” Furnas said. “These situations are much, much harder than they otherwise could be if different policy choices were being made.”

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