Housing Overcrowding is Worsening, Advocates say

Housing Overcrowding is Worsening, Advocates say

November 4, 2015

Data released this year warns of a growing problem with crowded housing in New York City, but advocates for immigrants and the homeless, as well as field researchers, say the numbers alone don’t do justice to the magnitude of the problem.   

A recent report by the comptroller’s office titled “Hidden Households,” declared that the city was “in the midst of a protracted housing emergency,” with nearly 1.5 million New Yorkers living in crowded conditions. Nearly nine percent of city dwellings were crowded—more than 2.5 times the national average.

Severe crowding—defined as more than 1.5 people per room—climbed nearly 45 percent between 2005 and 2013. A particularly dramatic statistic showed that the proportion of studio apartments with three or more tenants rose by 365 percent during the same time period.

“When you get too many people in one place, you're going to have problems,” said Ms. K, a homeless advocate with Picture The Homeless, who lived in a doubled-up apartment last year. “It's just abusive emotionally. You're living in this dirty place, you're out on the street and then you've got to go back in so that you don't freeze at night. So this crowding situation is a rough one.”

Ms. K said she nearly ended up on the street after she agreed to sublet a small apartment from a stranger. He said she would have the space to herself, but after she moved in, he stayed. Then, he moved another person into the space.

“But where am I going to leave to?” she asked. “I'm trying to make arrangements so that when I do leave, I leave to go somewhere else and not in the street.”

The link between crowding and homelessness is well established, explained Susan Saegert, Professor of Environmental Psychology at The Graduate Center at the City University of New York.

“All studies on homelessness find that crowding, doubling up, is the step before homelessness—very frequently,” Dr. Saegert said. “Hidden Households” is consistent with her past research on crowding, but showed a worsening trend. “I did find it pretty alarming,” she said.

Crowding erodes a person’s ability to handle stress, social situations, or even critical thinking exercises, said Dr. Saegert. “It means you can never just do things, it’s a more complicated calculation to figure out anything. Who gets to use the bathroom?”

Stress from the constant human contact builds up and can erode people’s ability to care for one another. “Over time (crowding) leads to less social support among people in the same dwelling and it can lead to more conflicts,” she said.

"It's probably not the same as life in turn-of-the-century New York in the Lower East Side, but it is still pretty high,” Dr. Saegert said. “It's actually pretty hard to figure this out, because for immigrant households there is a lot of illegal housing—and that can just be amazingly crowded."

Javier Valdés, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, described crowding as a common situation for the poor and working-class latino and asian families that make up their constituency. He sees immigrants packing into apartments in Brooklyn and Queens.

“Families are renting rooms—whole families,” Mr. Valdés said. “So, a family of four or five rents one room and then another family is in another room and they share the common space together. So that dynamic plays out often and that has a lot of impact.”

"New York City’s population is supposed to increase by a million people moving forward,” Mr. Valdés said, citing a projection by the Bloomberg administration. “Where are we going to house all those people? It's an infrastructure problem that we have to address.”

It can also be a health risk. Mr. Valdés sees medical issues arise from crowded housing in Bushwick, Jackson Heights, and Corona neighborhoods.

"We do see a high level of asthma,” Mr. Valdés said. Overcrowded housing in those neighborhoods, he said, leads to conditions allowing mold, rat droppings, and cockroaches to flourish—all known to cause or trigger asthma symptoms.

The comptroller’s report showed that 70 percent of crowded dwellings and a similar percentage of severely crowded dwellings in the city had a foreign-born head of household. The majority were immigrants from Latin America and Asia.

“Everything about this is so easy to understand if you use common sense,” Dr. Saegert said. As an illustration of a common scenario, she offered, “The daughter has a child, so she moves in with the mother—who may still have a teenager. Then grandmother has a stroke, so she moves in. Now you have caregiver burden, as well as low-income, as well as crowding.”

Family crowding is common in Washington Heights, according to Luis Tejada, executive director of the Mirabal Sisters Cultural and Community Center.

"From my point of view, this is something to be concerned about,” Mr. Tejada said. Especially, he explained, when families have to double up with strangers. “When you have to live with another couple, you don't know what's going to happen.” Mr. Tejada noted that aside from differing schedules, tolerances for mess, and other unpleasantness, living in close quarters can lead to safety concerns arising from alcohol, arguments, and unwanted guests.

Rising rents are to blame for overcrowding in Washington Heights, Mr. Tejada said. “Young people, they don’t have the income to have an apartment, because the rent is too high now.” If they tried to live on their own, Mr. Tejada said, they would likely be paying around 75 percent of their income.

“Their neighborhood is really getting hammered,” said Tom Waters, a housing policy analyst with the Community Service Society of New York. “Rents are rising especially fast there because of gentrification. Rents are rising everywhere.”

Decreased housing affordability is among the two reasons given in the comptroller’s report for the increase in crowding. The other reason was “the effect of the city’s multiculturalism.”

Researchers caution against making the logical leap that some immigrants may wish to live in more crowded conditions, because they come from less individualistic cultures.

"I'm still somewhat skeptical of the cultural explanation, because nobody wants to be crowded. They just might be more willing to accept crowding to get something else.” Mr. Waters said. “What is unclear is what some immigrant groups are getting in exchange for the crowded conditions they endure, Mr. Waters explained.

If the link between crowding and culture is in question, advocates and researchers agree that the link is much clearer between crowding and homelessness.

But while some may see a crowded home as a step up from homelessness. Ms. K believes the line between them is a blurry one. The stories she’s heard in her work for Picture The Homeless, depict a miserable existence for those desperate New Yorkers who pack into small spaces.

One man, Ms. K said, paid $200 in cash every month to live in a crowded house. ”And that was for a couch, I want to tell you,” she said. “This is how people are living so they don't have to deal with the street.” 

Frank Runyeon
Frank G. Runyeon
is City & State’s senior reporter. He covers state politics and investigations.