Chien-Chi Chang / Magnum Photos

Build More Homes for Families

Alicia Glen

June 26, 2024

We don’t just need more apartments — we need larger ones.

We don’t just need more apartments — we need larger ones.

I grew up in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s. It was wild and fabulous and challenging, and everything you might conjure up (both good and bad). In many ways, my block on the Upper West side was a microcosm of the city: “luxury” co-ops, rent-stabilized “prewar” apartment buildings, a City-owned “Old Law” tenement, one-family brownstones, a moderate-income Mitchell-Lama building and an NYCHA public housing development. Far from utopian, the block did nonetheless embody the extraordinary racial and economic diversity that makes cities great. With Central Park on one end, a public elementary school in the middle and a community facility that housed a Head Start and a seniors’ program on the end of the block, it was part of a vibrant and healthy urban neighborhood.

People are often surprised to learn that there are lots of other people like me — born and raised in New York City, who then chose to raise their own families in New York City and are committed to repeating this for future generations. But the reality is that the New York City of 2024 is one in which the vast majority of current or future residents will not have the opportunity to raise their families.

Under the weight of the country’s overarching housing crisis, cities are becoming increasingly unaffordable for families like those who grew up on my block. A recent headline in Gothamist, referencing data released by the Fiscal Policy Institute, pronounced: “Young families are fleeing NYC. Rising housing costs and child care are to blame.” And the data bear this out. The average two-bedroom apartment in New York now rents for $5,145 per month. That means a family needs to earn at least $200,000 in order to “afford” that apartment without being rent-burdened (rent burden is defined as spending more than 30% of income on rent). But the average median income for a family of four is only $155,300, a whopping 25% less than what they need.

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Families in other cities face the same predicament, so it’s no surprise that they are moving to more affordable locations. According to a report by the Economic Innovation Group, the number of families with children under the age of 5 living in large urban counties decreased by 6.1% between April 2020 and July 2022, while the overall population of those areas declined by just 0.9%. And in major cities, the decline is even more pronounced: In New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco, the population of young children was more than 10% smaller in July 2022 than in April 2020. The decline has manifested in a significant drop in school enrollment, with little hope for a rebound. In New York City, kindergarten enrollment is 18% lower than it was ten years ago. That is an alarming trend.

While the prohibitively high cost of housing is one of the main factors driving families out of cities, there is a whole other group of families who face a far worse predicament: They can’t afford to live in the city, nor can they afford to move out. For them, this macro “crisis” has become a very real personal crisis, with many forced into substandard and overcrowded housing, or actual homelessness. In New York City, the population of homeless families has more than tripled since the 1980s, and now accounts for 60% of the overall homeless population. On a national level, families are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population, accounting for 40%-50% of the country’s homeless. And research shows that, contrary to popular belief, the primary cause of homelessness, particularly for families, is lack of affordable housing.

The housing challenge that households with children face is getting worse. A review of affordable apartments — by which I mean housing that is income-tested and rent-restricted — completed in New York City in the last five years shows that almost 28,000 studios and one-bedrooms were built as compared to just over 11,000 two-bedroom units and only 2,500 three-bedrooms. In Chicago, a 2020 report by the Department of Housing showed that 75% of affordable apartments that were under construction through the city’s affordable housing programs were studios or one-bedrooms, while only 5% were three bedrooms or larger. In Seattle, 82% of new apartments were either studios or one-bedrooms. The same is true in San Diego, where 87% of projects permitted in the first two years of what the city called the Complete Communities program were studios and one-bedrooms. The pattern is the same from city to city, and as a result, studios and one-bedrooms — whether in affordable housing or market-rate developments — now constitute nearly 60% of units in new multifamily developments.

This scarcity of family-sized units is bad for everyone, but it is especially bad for women. Women are often heads of households with children, accounting for almost half of married families with children and a staggering 80% of single-parent households. Professions that require in-person contact — like jobs in health care, hospitality, retail and education — are dominated by women, who also take on the lion’s share of household duties and caretaking. This emotional and fiscal “double whammy” makes having housing proximate to their workplaces absolutely critical for women.

But homes big enough to house a family are both scarce and unaffordable, and especially unaffordable for women, because women are paid less. By one measure, women earn 84 cents for every dollar earned by men. Over a 40-year career, women lose over $450,000 due to the wage gap; women of color are even worse off, losing roughly $1 million. We have all heard these statistics before, but I think we sometimes forget the impact this has on the actual people who are affected. And one of these impacts is that it makes it very hard for a woman to afford her housing, particularly in higher-cost cities.

This scarcity of family-sized units is bad for everyone, but it is especially bad for women.

The bottom line? Almost half of female-headed renter households are “rent-burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30% of pretax income on rent, further eroding their economic stability and leading to adverse outcomes for themselves and their families. Families that struggle with rent burden are less likely to spend money on healthy food or medical care and are at higher risk of depression and chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease. And children in these households are more likely to be held back in school and experience more behavioral problems.

So what should we do? The good news is that for the first time in decades, the housing crisis in America is taking center stage in policy and political debates. How to produce more units, who deserves to be subsidized, how to lower the cost of housing, how to build more housing, how to make housing more “green,” how to promote equitable homeownership, how to develop mixed-use sustainable communities — and, of course, who’s going to pay for it all and how — are all on the table. But in all of the discussions about the housing crisis, and the affordability crisis in our major metro areas in particular, there has been almost no focus on the lack of housing that is affordable to families.

What does it mean if families can’t live in our cities? What are the long-term economic and social consequences, and why should we care?

Unlike suburbs and small towns, cities, where all kinds of people live, are places where we can effectively attack racial and economic segregation. They are where we can address climate change — by making existing construction more energy-efficient and developing sustainable dense communities near multimodal mass transit. Cities are where the greatest economic opportunities lie and where we find the most innovative companies, diverse cultural institutions and advanced health care. Cities prosper when they are populated by a dynamic mix of people, creating a climate that fosters new ideas borne from the diversity of perspectives and experiences.

And while cities will always house their share of transients and need constant injection of newcomers, whether they’re domestic strivers or migrants from abroad, they also need people who are lifelong residents, because those are among the people who are most engaged in civic life and who are most committed to the success of their hometown.

The good news is that, for the first time in decades, the housing crisis in America is taking center stage in policy and political debates.

Now, our cities — which brought families back in large numbers in the late 1990s and 2000s, as cities enjoyed a renaissance — face a real challenge: They are weeding out a large segment of our population and instead have become home only to the very wealthy, to transient young professionals or to the increasingly poorer families whose quality of life and opportunity for advancement is eroding. Where will that leave us? Imagine a New York City where few if any civic or government leaders grew up taking the 2 train.

I am proud to have been among the leaders of the current generation of “housers.” But on this key issue, we have failed. The public sector needs to take action. If they do not, the market will continue to deliver smaller units, pushing families further and further away from metropolitan centers and all that they offer. Here’s the start of an agenda on how to turn the trendlines around.

  1. Impose requirements that developers build a set threshold of family-sized units in projects developed on public land;
  2. Tie the receipt of direct subsidy or tax incentives to the creation or preservation of larger apartments;
  3. Enact a series of actions designed to help “right-size” housing. Free up bedrooms and larger apartments by building more affordable senior housing and incentivizing construction of Accessory Dwelling Units and “in-law” flats.
  4. Implement zoning changes to promote larger, family-sized units; Mayor Adams’ “City of Yes for Housing Opportunity” plan gets a lot right, but this is an oversight.
  5. Amend building and other relevant codes to promote innovative design and construction approaches to make dwelling units more flexible, allowing owners to accommodate changing family composition.

Like all thorny policy issues, enacting many of the changes I suggest will mean making some hard choices and shifting our political priorities. But housing “success” should not be measured purely in unit counts, a hard pill for elected officials to swallow. And in an ideal world, they wouldn’t have to. A prosperous and equitable city should have affordable and attainable housing for all — at all stages of life.