New York City’s housing affordability crisis is a complex issue that won’t be solved overnight. But as the city works to address the problem using macro solutions like rezoning and large-scale development, smaller nonprofits and community-based organizations can play a critical role at the local level. As the cost of living increases citywide, landlords who own small and mid-sized apartment buildings find it particularly difficult to keep rents affordable because they are more susceptible to swings in the market. And when rents go up, low-income families often have no choice but to move out of the neighborhoods they call home. Consider East Harlem, where 38 percent of residents live below the poverty line and median gross rents have jumped 40 percent since 2002. If owners can preserve the affordability of their buildings, they can help tenants stay in place and stabilize communities in the process.
This reality inspired New York Community Trust’s investment in the Landlord Ambassadors program, a pilot by Enterprise Community Partners and the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which trains community-based nonprofits as “ambassadors” to help landlords in vulnerable neighborhoods preserve the affordability of their buildings. The three inaugural ambassador nonprofits, Mutual Housing Association of New York, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and RiseBoro Community Partnership, have extensive experience with community engagement, proven track records of assisting property owners and a commitment to serving HPD priority areas.
Supporting owners in these neighborhoods directly helps low-income families. For example, the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development has found that nearly half of East Harlem residents are rent-burdened, paying more than 30 percent of what they earn each month to stay in their homes. Residents of other HPD priority areas, such as Brownsville in Brooklyn and Belmont/East Tremont in the Bronx, are similarly rent-burdened, and also face a heightened risk of eviction due to their buildings’ high rates of tax delinquency.
The Landlord Ambassadors program is providing building owners and residents in these neighborhoods with direct assistance to resolve these problems. For example, ambassadors are working to help East Harlem landlords learn how to better manage their properties and helping them navigate affordable housing preservation resources from HPD that both ensure long-term affordability and can help fund major upgrades to their buildings. Residents won’t just be protected from rent increases, they’ll also be able to live in homes that are healthy and safe. The ambassadors will also offer intensive technical assistance to multifamily property owners on the city’s tax lien docket to stabilize neighborhoods and reduce the risk that a property will go to tax sale.
The New York Community Trust chose to fund the Landlord Ambassadors program because of its focus on making a local impact: It targets New York City’s often overlooked small building owners, and in doing so, will strengthen all parts of a neighborhood. The program provides dedicated outreach to owners of multifamily buildings that are not currently in a financing program sponsored by HPD or the government and don’t have any affordability restrictions in place. It’s included and recognized as a key component of the preservation strategies of the East Harlem Housing Plan – the city’s plan to build and preserve affordable housing in the neighborhood. Further, the innovative program is a particularly promising model for preserving affordable housing, and could be expanded in future funding rounds to benefit even more New Yorkers.
Funding organizations should actively seek out and support localized programs that focus on delivering direct services to vulnerable New Yorkers and have the potential for widespread implementation and far-reaching success. We must invest in our communities directly and set them up with the tools they need to succeed – just as the Landlord Ambassadors program is doing in East Harlem and many other vulnerable neighborhoods. With financial commitment and local expertise, we can build a stronger New York where nobody is left behind.
Judi Kende is vice president and New York market leader at Enterprise Community Partners. Patricia Swann is senior program officer for the Thriving Communities program in the area of community development and technical assistance at New York Community Trust.