The Myth of “Affordable” Housing at 959 Sterling Place

The developers of 959 Sterling Place say they’re bringing affordable housing to the neighborhood. But like so much of what they say, this isn’t really true. Here are the facts: 

The developers say they plan to participate in a New York City program known as the Affordable New York Housing Program to provide these so-called “affordable” or “rent-stabilized” apartments. But the program’s name is misleading. In fact, by design, only the upper-middle class can afford apartments offered through Affordable New York.

The developers get a sweetheart deal: they won’t have to pay any property taxes at all on the building for up to 28 years, and then get up to a 30 percent discount on their taxes for the following decade. In exchange, they must cap the rents on up to 30 percent of the units in the building for 35 years (or, after that, until grandfathered tenants move out), with a mix of units at least proportional to the overall mix of the building.

Under the program, the developers can target monthly rents to renters earning 130 percent of what’s known as Area Median Income, a regional statistic calculated by the federal government as a benchmark for subsidized housing programs. In New York City, AMI is grossly inflated*. AMI should be a measure of middle income, where the number of families earning more money is the same as the number earning less. But fully two-thirds of three-person families in New York earned less than the official AMI in 2019, according to the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development. And three-fourths earned less than 130 percent of AMI.

Nonetheless, in conversations with the community, Hope Street Capital’s principals have indicated that this is the threshold they plan to use. In 2020, an individual earning up to $103,480 will qualify for an Affordable New York apartment, and a landlord can charge as much as $2,700 a month for a one-bedroom unit. While that might be a discounted rent in Brooklyn’s more affluent neighborhoods, in Crown Heights, it’s actually more expensive than the vast majority of available one-bedroom apartments, to judge from a quick scan of Street Easy.

Our north Crown Heights neighborhood remains largely low income and unequal. Overall, family income has increased here steadily since 2010, but it comes nowhere near the Area Median Income, let alone 30 percent above it. The median household income in the specific census tract where the church is located is $48,924, according to the latest Census Bureau data, from 2018. In the census tract immediately south, across Sterling Place, it is even lower, at $40,809**. (In 2018, the federal government set AMI at $73,100 for a single person and $121,000 for a family of six; 130 percent of AMI ranged from $95,030 to $157,300.)

And these figures are distorted by the arrival of increasingly wealthy whites. According to Census figures released in 2010, white and Black households in the church’s census tract had nearly the same median income. Over the next eight years, white household income grew sharply as Black household income basically stayed flat – and even fell in some years. Today, the median white household income is three times higher than for Black households; in the census tract across Sterling Place, white household income is four times higher. Indeed, the “affordable” apartments available at 959 Sterling Place would only worsen the inequality in our neighborhood.

In the church’s census tract, median income for Black households is $41,699; in the tract across the street, it is just $29,605. Even if Hope Street were to price one-bedrooms at, say, $2,500 a month, that rent would exceed the median household income for Black people in the southern census tract. 

The developers of 959 Sterling Place are not building apartments for the people who live in the neighborhood now, but for the people they hope will one day move in.

* Area Median Income is calculated from prior year Census surveys and then adjusted upward to account for higher housing costs in New York City. Moreover, it includes Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam Counties, all of which have higher median household incomes than even Manhattan’s.

** These census tract income figures are five-year averages. (The sample size is too small for annual statistics.) They look backwards somewhat rather than describe the current environment. In that respect, and because they refer to a household rather than specific family sizes, they don’t quite correlate to Area Median Income. But, of course, AMI itself is a manipulated statistic.