NYC Comptroller: Staffing shortage led to fewer affordable homes, longer delays

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By Dan Sears

The backlog for building new income-restricted housing in New York City grew longer after the city lost key staffing during the pandemic — exacerbating an already dire shortage of homes — according to a report released by city Comptroller Brad Lander on Thursday.

The report found the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development lost 263 employees during the pandemic, leading to a 14-month delay in financing new affordable housing projects and a 10-month delay for preservation projects. Lander’s office determined that there were 12,000 fewer affordable apartments built in 2022 as compared to the average number built with HPD’s pre-pandemic staffing.

“HPD is a critical choke point,” he said in an interview. “For the vast majority of affordable housing that’s financed, HPD is involved.”

Lander listed other obstacles to building more affordable housing in the city, including higher interest rates, the lack of a housing deal by state lawmakers that could spur more production, and neighborhoods resisting new development.

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“All those things are necessary, but for affordable housing especially, one critical thing is a housing department that can move expeditiously — and that is going to take some real management reform and streamlining,” he said.

Mayor Eric Adams’ administration has previously said that in 2023 it financed more new affordable housing in a single year than ever before, or more than 14,000 homes. For the city’s purposes, affordable housing is generally considered housing with income restrictions for residents that are tied to the area median income as defined by federal housing officials.

William Fowler, a spokesperson for the city housing office, noted that statistic again and said the comptroller’s report recommends many actions HPD has already taken.

“Like every workplace, HPD lost staff as a result of the pandemic but our ability to stay laser focused on providing homes for New Yorkers while rebuilding the agency is a testament to these city workers’ commitment to fighting the housing crisis at the scale it demands,” Fowler said in an emailed statement. “As the report correctly identifies, much of the challenge in addressing our housing crisis lies outside of the agency’s control.”

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Despite the effects of HPD’s personnel losses, Lander’s report credits the department’s recent efforts to solve its staffing issues.

The department hired an additional 212 workers over the last year-and-a-half, enabling it to spend nearly all of its allotted capital funding, according to the report. HPD was only able to spend 60% of its capital funding immediately following the pandemic.

Nick Berkowitz, a spokesperson for the housing advocacy nonprofit Open New York, said his organization has long advocated for the department to be exempted from city staffing cuts.

“Every new home that is delayed or not built, whether affordable or market rate, further extends New York’s affordability crisis,” he wrote in an email.

Lander said that in order to reach Adams’ “moonshot” goal of building 500,000 affordable apartments in the next decade, the department needs to overhaul the project approval process, streamline paperwork and be more flexible with developers.

“HPD has ambitious goals, and without change, it’s not going to be able to hit them,” he said.

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