There are two overlapping refrains in coverage of the trendiest boroughs of America’s largest city: “Neighborhood reaches new level of twee luxury” and “Real estate prices reach new level of absurdity.” Stories falling into those two categories account for a good chunk of the New York Times, New York magazine, and the New York Observer. And it’s true that parts of Manhattan can feel like a museum preserved for tourists or an upscale outdoor shopping mall, while “Brooklyn” has become a misused byword for moneyed hipster affectation.The reasons
Yet recently released census data paints a different portrait. Measured by median income, Manhattan and (especially) Brooklyn are much poorer than you think. Manhattan’s median annual household income is $66,739, while Brooklyn’s is a mere $44,850. Its less fashionable neighbor, Queens, outearns Brooklyn at $54,373 per year. New York City’s most suburban borough, Staten Island, is also its richest, with a median household income of $70,295, while the suburban counties surrounding New York are all richer than any of the boroughs.
- Geography: there are lots of less expensive neighborhoods than the ones that get the buzz.
- Rent regulation: there are 306,374 rent-regulated units in Brooklyn, nearly half the rental market (though the number is shrinking)
- Public housing: Brooklyn has 100 projects with 58,699 apartments; average family annual income in NYCHA projects is $22,994.
- History: some people live in upscale neighborhoods after paying very little decades ago.
- Demographics: immigrants often double up.
- Extra help: many people rely on parents or others to help pay the bills.
- Inequality: lazy math means average rents are in between very high and very low.
- Living beyond one’s meansL lots of people pay more than they can afford.
The high price of housing in NYC is caused by both supply and demand factors. On the demand side there is pressure at both ends of the price spectrum. Low-income immigrants (and to some extent adventurous youth from other parts of the country) cut their housing expenditures by enduring extreme crowding, while the world's super-rich are willing to pay whatever it takes to live in Manhattan. The result is an affordability crisis for people in the middle. While housing conditions for the non-rich in NYC are far from ideal, the opposite extreme of widespread abandonment and very low prices would be even worse.
“You have this incredible disconnect, where median income has declined and housing costs have gone up,” says Andrew Beveridge, professor of sociology at Queens College. Beveridge attributes Mayor Bill de Blasio’s victory in part to frustration with the lack of affordability. “The average person is not doing as well in New York,” says Beveridge. “Life is harder for them now than it was 10 years ago.”And that's why "affordable housing" is such a big deal, though of course the devil's in the details.