Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Value Of Rental Housing

Where Did You Live When You Were 25?

Civic Strategies, Inc., a strategic planning firm that focuses on public policy solutions for cities and regions, opines on the double-edged sword of rental apartments on Long Island. The organization, based in Atlanta, may not have the complete picture, as do those who live here, but even this broad overview paints a picture of concern for the future of America's oldest suburb.

Ask anyone who worries about the decline of older suburbs and she'll tell you that one of the greatest culprits is rental housing. Healthy suburbs are overwhelmingly owner-occupied, she'll say, and places that allow detached housing to become rental units and apartment complexes to move in are asking for trouble. But that may not always be the case.

Take New York's Long Island suburbs. On the surface, they're doing great. Only 20 percent of residents live in rental housing, compared to 33 percent nationally, and the value of owner-occupied housing is skyrocketing. Housing prices have doubled in the past six years, local real estate watchers say, and the average price of a single-family house last year was more than $390,000, twice the national average.

So what's wrong with this picture? Long Island is losing its young people who can't afford to buy a house and can't find an apartment to rent. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of 18- to 34-year-olds declined by 20 percent, the Chicago Tribune reported recently, causing leaders to worry about labor shortages and a shrinking tax base. "Our population is stagnant because there's no new housing. We're not growing," Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi told the Tribune. "We could face a tipping point where the high quality of life that we have in Long Island will come to resemble the death of the cities that we went through in the 1970s."

Actually, this is a common problem among older suburbs (the Silicon Valley near San Jose, Calif., and the Los Angeles suburb of Orange County also have sky-high prices and not enough apartments). So why not just build more apartments? Because residents hate the idea of renters in the suburbs and go ballistic over talk of "affordable housing," which they equate with welfare recipients. "If development is viewed as threatening those things people embrace as suburbia, those projects aren't going anywhere," one regional planner said. So leaders on Long Island use euphemisms like "workforce housing" and "next-generation housing" to sell residents on the idea of mixing in a few apartments when land is redeveloped.

Footnote: So what are rents like on Long Island? So high that some resident have illegally converted their basements into apartments, which they rent to college kids at Stony Brook University. One student told the Tribune such places can go for $750 a month. Most who rent have to bring in a roommate to afford it.

© Copyright 1998-2006, Civic Strategies, Inc.
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Wow. $750 a month for a basement apartment (presumably illegal) in Stony Brook. Come out to Nassau County's west end, where a basement apartment in Elmont will fetch upwards of $1200. And the more people the landlord can squeeze into that basement -- and squeeze for tax-free rent money -- the better (for the landlord, that is).

Yes, we all know there's a problem here, and it is multi-faceted, to say the least. Soaring cost of single-family housing and related expenses (fed, in part, by the artificial hike in market value when a single-family house is marketed -- wink, wink -- as a multi-family home). Lack of affordable housing stock (inclusive of legal rentals) for so-called "workforce" and the "next generation." Erosion of tax base due to uncaptured income (illegal rent rolls not reported). Escalating costs, passed on to the taxpayers, of providing essential services (fire, police, sanitation, schools, water) to the not so invisible legions of illegal renters, from whom zero property tax is collected.

Add to the mix an unwillingness on the part of Long Islanders to build vertically, to increase density, and to demand strict compliance with and enforcement of the building and zoning codes, and we find ourselves in a serious quandary, indeed.

Illegal rental units have been described as a "scourge" upon our communities, and rightfully so. The lack of affordable housing -- whether through ownership or rental -- has reached a critical stage. Long Islanders are beginning to feel the economic pinch, as this aging suburb goes from melting pot to meltdown.

At The Community Alliance, we will continue to examine the many quality of life concerns that impact upon our communities, and to explore viable and feasible solutions to the problems that threaten the very fabric of the suburban patchwork quilt.

In addition to enforcement issues and getting a firm grip on how we raise revenues to pay for services from sanitation to schools, we must begin to look more closely at how we can redevelop our "Main Streets," "Downtowns," and "brownfields" so as to not only generate growth in the business sector, but moreover, to create, at the core of community, affordable residential living space that measurably increases available housing, while decreasing -- and, long term, eliminating -- the necessity that has created the mother of all insidious inventions, the illegal accessory apartment.

Where do we go from here? We'd like your opinions, suggestions and commentary. Write us at

1 comment:

  1. There wouldn't be illegal accessory apartments if zoning and tax laws weren't discriminatory against apartment buildings.

    Rent controls must be abolished.

    Free markets should decide what kind of housing there is, not politicians,not activist pests,not civic associations of activist pests.

    We need to get government out of providing services, including and especially education. Government schools lead to the pernicious paradox that young families with children are considered undesirable. After great expense, we educate children and then force them off Long Island. Does that make any sense?

    Richard Cooper,

    Former Chair,Libertarian Party of Nassau County
    Former Chair, Libertarian Party of New York