No Space Like Home


The good news, according to a citywide housing study, is that new construction and renovation made nearly 44,000 more apartments available in 1999 than in 1996. The bad news is that even with that increase, the city’s vacancy rate dropped to 3.19 percent—nearly a full percentage point less than in the previous survey, in 1996, and the lowest it has been in 12 years. And while a report on just how hard it is to find an apartment here could be dismissed as obvious, the study’s details give context to New York’s chronic housing shortage.

For instance, there were 21 percent fewer vacant apartments available for rent in 1999 than in 1996, and nearly 30 percent fewer for sale. The number of rent-controlled apartments has plummeted by 26 percent since 1996; rent-stabilized units have fallen off by 6000 units. The highest vacancy rate (7 percent) is among apartments renting for more than $2000 a month; it’s nearly impossible to find one under $699. Queens is the tightest of all the boroughs, with a vacancy rate of only 2.11 percent; Manhattan, which had a vacancy rate of 3.47 percent in 1996, has shrunk to 2.57 percent.

The data, released February 16, come from the Housing Vacancy Survey (HVS), a triennial U.S. Census Bureau report. Lawmakers rely on the HVS to determine if a housing emergency—defined as a market so tight, the vacancy rate is 5 percent or below—exists. If it does, the state laws that regulate rents on 1,098,939 apartments may continue. In 1996, the citywide vacancy rate was 4.01 percent.

According to the 1999 survey, the number of apartments renting for $1750 a month grew by 34 percent; the number renting for between $400 and $599 continued to decline, dropping more than 10 percent. The 1996 HVS reported the loss of 112,000 apartments renting for under $500; the 1999 study found that nearly 9000 more had fallen out of that category, and another 9000 renting from $500 to $699 were gone.

“Our concern is that the low-rent sector is wrenchingly tight, and that’s where there is the least indication that things are being dealt with,” says Victor Bach, a housing analyst at the Community Service Society, which advocates for impoverished New Yorkers. “There will be virtually no place for low-income families to live unless it’s illegal or doubled-up.” The HVS found that overcrowding rose citywide to 11 percent, up from 10.3 percent in 1996.

And while the HVS found that the 1998 median household income of all renters increased 8.8 percent (to $26,000), rents outpaced that with a 9.4 percent hike. The median household income of homeowners was $53,000. Housing and neighborhood conditions, measured in the number of boarded-up buildings or problems with maintenance or heat, have generally improved, according to the study. “That’s entirely consistent with what’s been going on for the past 10 or 20 years,” says Michael Schill of New York University Law School’s Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. “Overall, this report shows there’s nothing like a booming economy. It doesn’t mean everyone shares equally, but a rising economy does lift most boats somewhat.”

Jail for Landlord

A Brooklyn landlord who tenants say froze them in winter and broiled them in summer will spend 30 days in jail because he ignored a judge’s order to make repairs, according to a February 22 decision by Brooklyn Housing Court judge Ava Alterman. Although the landlord, 78-year-old Absolum Hunter, “demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the intricacies of the heating system, he offered no credible explanation regarding the lack of heat and hot water,” wrote Alterman. “His failure to do so is particularly glaring in view of the fact that the boiler functioned perfectly to provide heat in the middle of the summer.”

Tenants in Hunter’s buildings at 1834 and 1836 Park Place in Crown Heights sweltered on summer days. Officials measured apartment temperatures of 109 degrees and noted radiators blasting steam. In 1998, after elderly tenant Lena Hurt was found dead in her apartment, Hunter became the focus of an investigation by the Brooklyn D.A. The medical examiner says Hurt died of heart disease, and the D.A.’s probe ended with no charges. Days before her death, in an NBC news report, Hunter said he wanted the tenants out because they paid no rent; he later told the Voice that Hurt was “the devil.”

Fewer than six families remain in Hunter’s buildings, which contain 48 apartments, and tenants at 1834 Park Place say they’ve been without heat and hot water since January. “Jail would serve him right,” says tenant Georgina Samms, 66. “I feel no pity for him. But his going to jail doesn’t make me feel any better because this here place is so run-down.”