Lucas Jackson/Reuters

A new study from New York’s Independent Budget Office reveals that nearly a third of public housing units are under-occupied, often by older residents living alone. But can the city find a humane fix?

The vacancy rates in New York City’s public housing have fallen to an extraordinarily low rate—0.6 percent. As as of December 2017, just 1,050 units are available, and 25,000 families are lined up waiting for a spot to open up.

But it’s not simply that there aren’t enough empty rooms. Nearly a third of all New York City Housing Authority apartments are under-occupied, according to a new report from the city’s Independent Budget Office. Of the 176,066 public housing units NYCHA rents out, 57,155 were under-occupied as of January 2017. Roughly half of those units were headed by older residents—age 65 and up.

The presence of even one extra bedroom renders a unit “under-occupied.” That often occurs when kids grow up and move out, leaving older residents with public housing units too big for their current family composition. These are “potentially people that at one point in their lives lived in the right size unit, had a big family,” said  Elizabeth Brown, supervising analyst for Housing, Environment, and Infrastructure at the IBO and the author of the report. “But currently, given the stage of their life, they have more bedrooms than necessary.”

The problem is that identifying and filling those under-occupied units—a process called rightsizing—has long proven frustrating for NYCHA officials, who haven’t yet been able to find an effective and humane solution short of displacing, reshuffling, and separating. “NYCHA has a rightsizing policy, but the reality is the extraordinarily low vacancy rate—.6 percent—limits our ability to offer new units to those willing to be rightsized,” said NYCHA in an emailed statement.

In 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio funded a new rightsizing pilot program to more actively incentivize families living in extremely under-occupied units to move into appropriate-sized apartments. Instead of being pushed to leave, the city tried to lure them with a $5,000 incentive covering packing, moving, and unpacking. Once they arrived in new apartments, they were given supportive services to facilitate the transition.

Still, many residents were unwilling. “According to the results of this pilot, the cash incentive was not the most important driver for rightsizing, but location was,” said NYCHA in an email. “Residents wanted to remain in their community.”

That’s particularly true for older tenants, especially those who may have had children grow up, partners pass away, and family members move out. Among seniors living alone, the social capital in those community bonds may be all they have left.

The city’s stock of empty bedrooms is vast, but unequally distributed. Of the 84,751 two-bedroom apartments in New York, approximately 35 percent are under-occupied; of the 39,482 three-bedrooms, approximately 56 percent are under-occupied; and of the 5,665 four-bedrooms, approximately 60 percent are under-occupied. Large apartments are most rare, but they’re also filled least frequently: There are only 915 NYCHA apartments with five or more units, but 75 percent, or 687 of them, are under-occupied.

“I think if you look at current demographics in NYC in general, smaller units are desired (one bedrooms, studios),” said Brown. “If you look at the NYCHA wait list, that’s what people are looking for now. Not just for public housing, but for the city in general: Smaller units are in more demand.” While families are matched with apartments that correspond to their size, the largest apartments are hardest to fully populate.

This trend is only accelerating. In 2012, NYCHA data revealed that 56,300 apartments were under-occupied; in five years, that number has grown by more than 1,000. The phenomenon isn’t just an inefficient use of a very-limited resource, it’s technically not up to code: The U.S. Department of Housing mandates that state housing authorities do not over- or under-fill their apartments.

In an effort to better comply with these federal guidelines, NYCHA revamped their process of rightsizing under-occupied units in 2012. Every year, public housing residents are required to complete an income recertification process to confirm eligibility—when residents hand in those forms, they’re also asked to disclose how many individuals are living with them. When an apartment is found to be under-occupied, residents are asked by staff to consider rightsizing. They’re then sent a letter requesting they apply for a transfer within their housing development. If the resident does not take action within 10 days, they’re sent another warning letter. If a third is left unanswered they’ll be put on a borough-wide transfer list.

But that three-letter policy was never aggressively enforced, according to NYCHA representatives. “We do not say you’re forced to move,” said Jasmine Blake, NYCHA’s press secretary. “That is, I believe, officially the standard procedure, but we do not pursue that, really.”

In a 2012 public hearing to address rightsized residents’ concerns, attendees were concerned that the consequences for living in an under-occupied apartment were unclear. “I understand the need to maximize the utilization of the City’s precious public housing stock,”said New York State Assemblymember Linda B. Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “I am, however, extremely concerned by the lack of forethought that has been evident throughout the process.” One tenant who spoke at the hearing felt he was wrongly evicted for failing to voluntarily move to the smaller apartment he had been reassigned to. NYCHA denied that claim.

NYCHA representatives acknowledge that enforcement is a critical issue, and are working on drafting new legislation, a process they described as being “in its infancy.” De Blasio’s 2016 effort to offer incentives was supposed to bring down under-occupancy rates proactively, but “when people really demonstrated they’d rather stay in homes than take incentives, that really put us back,” said Blake.

Housing stability is particularly critical in old age, said Shannon Guzman, a housing expert with AARP. “People want to stay in their homes and communities as they age,” she said. “They’ve made certain connections to their neighborhoods, they’ve raised their families, and they’ve also made connections with services that are available in their community. Breaking those ties is very difficult.”

In an AARP study, nearly 90 percent of those over 65 said they preferred to remain in their current homes. Those in public housing are no different, and the housing authority is obliged to protect them, according to NYCHA press secretary Blake. “We don’t aggressively enforce [forced transfers], because at the heart of what we do, we want to let seniors age in place,” she said. “We don’t want to force people out of their homes.”

So what can be done? Housing advocates insist that the city will need more public housing specifically tailored to seniors’ needs. Metro-IAF proposed building 15,000 new units to house at least half of the almost 30,000 older tenants living in under-occupied units. “That would enable mass move-outs and, equally important, open up public housing to a new generation now locked out,” said one NY Daily News editorial. The mayor’s counter offer? Only 1,000 units.

Building new housing for older residents also wouldn’t solve the question of displacement entirely—the elderly will still have to move—nor does it address the damage of rightsizing to non-elderly New Yorkers. Older tenants are currently heading 40 percent of New York public housing households, and 28,678 of those units are under-occupied; it’s getting harder to house them without increasing the length of the public housing waitlist. The issue isn’t going away on its own, and as the vast Baby Boom generation ages, it’s likely to worsen in many cities nationwide.

“The older adult population is growing pretty rapidly across the country,” said Guzman of AARP. “Communities are having to face how they’re going to address the needs of people as they age.”

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