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Musical Chairs

Samuel Stein
Why did New York City’s rents skyrocket in the aftermath of the pandemic?

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A window cleaner at work in Brooklyn, New York, December 5, 2022

My oldest friends, Tal and Nate, lived in Clinton Hill for fifteen years. When they moved there in 2005, virtually everyone around them rented; only a few families seemed to have very high incomes. But both of those dynamics gradually changed. By the time they enrolled their daughter Mira in preschool, there were no other renters among the parents. “With the influx of all the new condos, the neighborhood had gotten so rich,” Tal told me.

They could tell their landlord wanted to raise their rent, as he had done for all the apartments upstairs when they turned over. Even as the rents rose, the building declined. Its heating system was chronically failing, to the point that Tal and Nate regularly had to put Mira to bed in a coat. In the winter of 2020, the landlord finally fixed the boiler, in return for which he demanded they pay $1,000 more in rent each month.

Their financial circumstances were looking difficult when Covid hit. Then, almost overnight, the real estate situation changed dramatically. Hundreds of thousands of people left the city, which led to an enormous amount of vacancy and turnover—and a bit of a pickle for landlords, who were soon offering “Covid deals,” that is, renting vacant apartments at rates notably lower than before the pandemic. “Deal” was always a misleading term. If the amount a landlord charges for an unregulated apartment is defined as the “market rate,” then this was simply the new market rate, adjusted for new conditions. All the same the language of a “deal” made two things apparent: that asking rents were lower than they used to be, and that the situation would not last.

Tal and Nate found just such a place. It was the penthouse apartment in a relatively new building close to Prospect Park; the asking rent had plunged by $1,000 as the pandemic worsened. They were able to move from a dark, cold, crowded, belowground one-bedroom into a sunny, spacious, top-level home with an outdoor deck and a separate bedroom and bathroom for Mira. “Part of me knew it would be a temporary deal, but part of me hoped it would last,” Tal recalled.

Two years later the landlord refused to renew the lease. They ran into another neighbor who faced the same problem. Suddenly they were back in an urgent search for a new home, with a child in the local school. The market seemed to jump by 25 percent in 2022; their salaries didn’t go up by anything near that rate. They had to decide, Tal told me, in what particular way to compromise: “Do we want one less bathroom or less light, do we want to live farther from the school or from the park?”

As they scrambled to find a new home, it was clear the city was going through a major residential reshuffle, with a historic number of renters all picking up and moving at the same time. This made for a bonanza for landlords, who could pit competing would-be tenants against one another. “We saw one that was a ‘micro-apartment,’” Tal told me. “It was like an apartment for ants. Everything was tiny: tiny dishwasher, tiny refrigerator, tiny window, tiny stairs. And there were like twenty people lined up to see it. There was another one that was dirtier than anarchist squats I’d been in in my twenties. And it was like $4,500, on a major thoroughfare with trucks barging down the street at all hours.”

They ultimately found a home through another parent at Mira’s school. It is a nice apartment in a two-family house; the price is manageable for them. But it is a market-rate rental, which allows their landlord to raise the rent or refuse to renew the lease. Should that happen, they will need to move yet again.


If this sounds like your story, you are not alone. For New Yorkers, the years between 2020 and 2023 were a terrible game of musical chairs. When the sirens started, hundreds of thousands packed up and moved. When they were ready to sit down again, they fought for the remaining seats. In this contest, those with the most money paid a premium for their chosen places, while those without the means were left standing outside the circle.

An alarming 761,200 New York households, or 22 percent, moved into their current homes in the years 2021 or 2022, according to data released last month by the New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey—the country’s most comprehensive local housing study, which has been conducted every few years for the past six decades. This is an unusual amount of what real estate types call “churn.” 230,000 more households moved into their homes in this period than in 2019 and 2020—a 44 percent increase. It is unusual, too, from a national perspective. From 2019 to 2021, the national proportion of people who moved to new housing annually kept falling, even as it kept rising in New York. While there was a relatively small (0.3 percentage points) uptick in movers nationally in 2022, New York City’s trends are far more extreme.


People who use the term “churn” tend to do so positively, associating it with a healthy real estate market, in which there is enough vacancy that people have multiple options whenever they choose to move. But that is not the city we are living in. The same survey reveals that just 1.4 percent of homes in New York City are up for rent, one of the lowest vacancy rates ever measured.

Nor are the apartments that open up exactly affordable. Of those who moved in 2022, a majority (57 percent) moved into “market-rate” apartments, or homes where the landlord can freely set rents and tenants have no control over renewing their lease; 42 percent moved into apartments renting above $2,400 a month, the top quartile of the market. It should not come as a surprise that the transformation occurred along fairly clear lines of class and race. Low-income people and people of color continue to move within the city, in no small part because evictions have risen once again to near pre-pandemic levels, but overall the movers tended to be higher-income white people.

Last spring, a colleague and I were invited to testify before the city’s mayoral-appointed Rent Guidelines Board, which meets annually to consider data and testimony from landlords and tenants, based on which it votes on whether to raise, freeze, or reduce rents for rent-stabilized apartments. We noted the citywide trend that emerged in 2020 and 2021: people with means left, in contrast to those with rent-stabilized leases, who stayed. Landlords might have felt some appreciation for their rent-stabilized tenants, who were padding losses from empty market-rate apartments in their buildings. Instead, landlords begged the Board to raise rents for their most loyal income stream, and were rewarded with a 3 percent hike on one-year leases, the second-highest increase in a decade; the previous year it had been raised by 3.25 percent.

The new data allow us to see that the richer have largely returned and the poorer are being pushed out. Fewer New Yorkers are low-income—and it’s not because they all got raises. Between 2021 and 2023, the number of households making less than $100,000 dropped by over 180,000, while the number of households making more than $100,000 grew by over 450,000. Of the apartments that were marked vacant in the 2021 Housing and Vacancy Survey but occupied in the 2023 survey, most (56 percent) now have tenants making more than $100,000, even though such high earners make up 36 percent of renter households. When lower-income households have to move, there are few affordable options available to them. Some will literally win the lottery for affordable housing. But many will leave New York and either endure longer commutes into the city or try to make a life elsewhere.


What explains this state of affairs? Is New York City, like its nearby suburbs, failing to build enough new housing? There are still parts of the city where little housing gets built, but the number of housing units grew by about 61,000 between 2021 and 2023, and by 175,000 between 2017 and 2021. Over the last twenty-five years, a rocky period for New York during which both the attacks on the World Trade Center and the global financial crisis occurred, developers grew the city’s housing stock by about 666,000 homes (accounting for demolitions and apartment combinations), while its population grew by as much as 796,000—0.84 homes for every new resident. That is short of a one-to-one ratio, but most homes do not house just one person; the average New York City household size is 2.55 people. If new households mirrored the city as a whole and the type of new construction being built met their needs, they could theoretically fit in fewer than half the new homes.

Bess Adler/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Prospective tenants lining up for an apartment viewing, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, February 11, 2022

Why, then, does it feel like we’re not building enough housing? Why are tenants fighting over ever-fewer available apartments? One answer could be “warehousing”—keeping apartments off the market. Landlords often do this to make their building more desirable to a future buyer or in the hope that rent laws will be weakened in the future. The practice is maddeningly common in parts of the city (like the Lower East Side or Williamsburg) where there is both a lot of gentrification and a lot of rent-stabilized apartments.

Altogether, 230,200 units were marked vacant in 2023 for any number of reasons, from the normal to the ignoble. Of those, 13,680 were “held as vacant,” meaning that they have been empty “for twelve months or longer where no other reason was reported.” That is no small number, but it is down 47 percent from 2021, and the decline tracks among almost all the survey’s various vacancy categories. In 2023 another 2,001 were “held for other reasons,” down from 27,320 in 2021. By far the largest category of vacant apartments was those where the owner simply lives someplace else most of the time, at 58,810 units. But even that large sum is down dramatically from 102,900 in the 2021 survey. There are ways to combat undesirable forms of emptiness, from social housing conversions of warehoused tenement buildings to taxes on underoccupied luxury apartments. But the authors of the survey’s summary make clear that, unlike in previous years, intentional vacancy is declining: “The clearest pattern is one of higher occupancy across the board.”


If “supply” is not meeting “demand,” despite new units keeping pace with new population, perhaps it is because those terms do not mean what we generally think they do when it comes to housing. In real estate discourse, a “unit” is an interchangeable variable for the multiplicity of homes in a city. A single-room occupancy in Harlem is one unit of housing, as is a single-family mansion in Bay Ridge. The term thus papers over such characteristics as size, condition, price, and location—the very things that a person considers when looking for a place to live. Building more housing gives people looking to move more choices, but it does not necessarily give them the choices they are looking for. Most movers are seeking homes in specific areas; new housing elsewhere does not directly help them.

Our housing budgets, moreover, are determined by our income and wealth; adding housing that the mover cannot afford does not immediately do much for them either. Having more certainly helps, since new homes might appeal to someone else who would otherwise compete with the mover for the housing they want, but this indirect effect can be slow and is always contingent. Movers are not magnets attracted to any new housing and they do not flow like water into any new space that opens. Social and economic life is never so smooth or so balanced.

Population counts can likewise convey less than they seem to. Most people live with others in a household—a family of choice, birth, circumstance, or some combination of all three. Different kinds of households need different kinds of housing. The average household size in the city ranges from a low of 1.6 in Midtown East to a high of 3.8 in Borough Park. From 2000 to 2020, New York City’s average household size went from 2.59 to 2.55. That is not a huge decline, but it can have a major impact at scale. The 2020 census counted a historically high population of 8,804,190 people. At an average household size of 2.59, we would need about 3,399,000 homes to house them; at an average household size of 2.55, we would need about 3,453,000. The difference between these two scenarios is 54,000 homes—about the size of the housing stock of Bedford-Stuyvesant in 2021.

There are still plenty of families with kids in New York City, but households have more adults than they used to. A 2017 study found that since 2000 the city’s overall population grew by 6.6 percent—less than the adult population, which grew by 11 percent. This tracks with rising average age and falling natality rates, but it is also a consequence of the skyrocketing costs of housing and childcare. There is now increased demand both for smaller housing, in part driven by the growing number of adults living alone, and for bigger housing, driven by growing families as well as by adults who want more private space at home, especially for their workdays.

All of these trends, underway since 2000, accelerated during the pandemic. The New York City survey does not ask why people moved, but national polling suggests a lot of it has to do with Covid-induced changes to relationships and jobs. Many people who stuck out the lockdown together were ready to part once society reopened, spiking demand for small apartments. Others found that they were not returning to in-person work as expected, requiring more space at home, now doubling as an office. Still others who returned to the city balked at small apartments after exposure to the suburbs. With so many tenants looking for different kinds of housing, landlords not operating under rent regulation could get away with charging tremendous amounts for otherwise underwhelming offerings.  

A tight housing market can be hell for renters. Having more housing would certainly be helpful, especially if that new supply was social housing—which the coalition Housing Justice for All defines as “permanently affordable” housing that “prioritizes community ownership and democratic control, and is protected from market forces”—rather than unaffordable rentals and condominiums. But there is no perfect equilibrium at which built form matches social form, making regulation unnecessary. Or, if there were such a state, it would not persist long. Housing will never be as elastic as households. This is not only because construction is complicated in a city as crowded as New York, but also because there is a fundamental difference between people and things.

Households change shape over time and can recompose rapidly during an emergency like a pandemic. But despite the work of inventive architects, our housing tends to stay more or less the same. A one-bedroom can be changed into a two-bedroom, through means either expensive (a true reordering of space) or shoddy (a quick partition). Architectural think tanks like John Habraken’s Stiching Architechten Research (SAR)—which operated in the Netherlands between 1964 and 1990—have tried to model a more flexible form of housing, in which apartments could be expanded, shrunk, or even combined, by rearranging walls, so as to accommodate changing households. Yet such programs have to contend with the solidity both of buildings themselves and of people’s ideas about them. There is nothing quite as concrete as concrete.

Meanwhile we move. We move from home to home within the city, either retaining our neighborhood ties or severing them. We seek smaller or bigger homes as our lives change in ways our domestic arrangements cannot accommodate. We move out of the city, either because our lives have changed in ways that make city living less workable or because the city has changed in ways that make living there less workable. We move to the city, either returning to a place we once left or looking for a new place to make a life. Will the hundreds of thousands of New York City households now living in homes into which they recently moved pick up and move again in a year or two? What if they want to stay?


In most cases, whether a tenant will be able to stay rests less on their own will than on the whims of their landlord. Over the past five years, tenants and homeless groups from across the state, organizing with Housing Justice For All, have been fighting for protections for market-rate renters who are deprived of the two main benefits of rent stabilization: a guaranteed lease renewal offer and a predictable rent. To fix that, the tenant movement has coalesced around the prospect of “Good Cause” eviction protections, alongside other measures meant to strengthen tenants’ power.

Sponsored in the state senate by Julia Salazar and in the state assembly by Pamela J. Hunter, and supported by Housing Justice for All, Good Cause would bar “no-fault” evictions (those in which the renter has done nothing wrong) and allow tenants to challenge the kinds of unreasonable rent increases that function as de facto evictions—defined in the bill as 3 percent of the total rent or 1.5 times the Consumer Price Index, whichever is higher. At the same time, Housing Justice for All and many others are fighting for money to help low-income and homeless people pay their rent through the Housing Access Voucher Program. The Right to Counsel coalition is pushing for an expansive legal right to a lawyer when tenants are fighting displacement.

For the past five years, the legislature and the governor have balked at this prospect, choosing instead to let renters work it out with their landlords on an individual basis. Each year that the state government delays action, however, the crisis worsens and the movement grows. While the past few years offer little evidence for optimism, the fact that this is an election year for state legislators could stoke some politicians to take a more active part in fighting for tenants in the upcoming budget.

In a housing market with a 1.4 percent vacancy rate, the idea of picking up and moving again is daunting, making tenants likelier to put up with bad conditions or harassment. But no one can put up with rents they can’t pay. If Good Cause and other tenant protections had been in place at the start of the pandemic, those who had to move because their landlord retracted their “Covid deals” could still be in their homes. If the law is not changed to protect them, the city’s terrible game of musical chairs will start all over again.

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