Ask most people what type of property they live in and they will tell you if it’s terraced, detached, what type of roof it has, or in the case of an apartment what floor it’s on, how many bedrooms and bathrooms it has, whether it has its own yard, and maybe what the neighbourhood is like; but ask them what ‘Home’ means to them and they will speak in terms of values, such as family, love, sanctuary, warmth, comfort and security. For most people the equation is simple, we rent, lease or buy a property according to our means, and over time we make it the way we like it, fill it with things we need or like to have around us, make sure it is secure against damage or intrusion, find a reliable buildings and home contents insurance policy just in case, and then we simply live there.
Homelessness in New York
Some don’t have that opportunity. Homelessness in New York City is an almost intractable problem, and the situation is getting worse. The annual tally of those living on the subways or the streets for 2011 was 2648, although that is probably an underestimation. When added to the 40,000 or more people sleeping in homelessness shelters, the hundreds of thousands of hidden homeless who live in cheap hotels and motels, or in overcrowded conditions with friends and family, and those who have nowhere other than one of the tent cities on the outskirts of the city or across the river in New jersey, the problem is enormous. They are the vulnerable, the jobless, the dispossessed, the physically and mentally ill, the non-functioning veterans, and mostly the working poor.
Figures that don’t Add Up
Even with a job, living in New York is a constant challenge. The most recent full set of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is for the first quarter of 2011. They showed that, excluding Manhattan, wages in the other four boroughs were 10% or more below the national average, with Queens having the highest weekly wage of $844; and wage increases in the four boroughs was no greater than for the rest of the country. Yet in January this year, the Huffington Post reported that the Council for Community and Economic Research ranked Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens as being in the top five most expensive urban areas to live in the US. They also reported the living wage for New York City as being $11.86, although the current minimum wage is the same as the national figure at $7.25. As of March 2012 the average rent for a two bedroom apartment in New York was £2,919 per month, a figure which has increased by over 10% in the last year. The accepted maximum percentage of income to be spent on housing is 30% of income, and on that basis a family would have to be earning almost $117,000 for this to be affordable. For people in minimum wage employment, that is an unimaginable sum, as even a couple working two jobs each would be unlikely to make even half that amount.
Public Housing – Not Enough
Therefore, most low income families looking for a home have to hope that they will get some form of public housing, but that too is a scarce resource. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) ensure that the cost of rents for tenants, be it for conventional public housing or under Section 8 in collaboration with private landlord, do not exceed the 30% of that income figure. NYCHA’s own statistics show that they currently have 403,357 authorized residents on their books, yet this still accounts for only 4.9% of the city’s population, and there is a waiting list exceeding 160,000 families for conventional public housing, and more than 120,000 for the Section 8 program. With a turnover rate of less than 4%, the wait may never end for some.
A Living wage
The homelessness problem in New York will only improve with a large scale increase in the provision of public housing, which seems highly unlikely, or with an improvement in the income of those looking for a home. With the hoped for economic recovery some of those affected by the down turn will find jobs, or better paying jobs, and will be able to re-establish a proper home for themselves and their families, but others will continue to be low earners, and for them it is important that their income move closer to the living wage that is needed to live in New York. That is why, after eight years without change, it is important that the current push by State Senator Jeffrey Klein, Assemblyman Keith Wright and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to increase the minimum wage to $8.50 is successful. Their proposal is that the figure should then be automatically indexed to inflation, which would at least ensure that it did not remain static in the future, but in reality this should only be a first modest step towards improving the lives of many hard working New Yorkers who simply want to earn a wage that gives them a home.
Imogen Reed is a freelance writer from England who writes on behalf of a number of good causes including an alcohol addiction center
Sources: Huffington Post 01/06/12 & 01/27/12, coli.org, nyc.gov, coalitionforthehomeless.org, Metro Focus 02/06/12, NY Times 02/12/12