NYC Housing Agency’s Staff Shortage Stymies Affordable Development

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Five months into Mayor Eric Adams’ administration, a significant staff shortage at the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) threatens to slow New York’s affordable housing pipeline to a crawl. 

A new report from policy nonprofit New York Housing Conference finds that New York City’s housing agency is short about 400 staffers of its budgeted headcount for this year. It currently employs 2,244 people, but the city planned funding for a staff of 2,640. Buffeted by budget cuts during the height of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, HPD — like many other city agencies — has seen many staffers leave for higher-paying, more flexible jobs in the private sector. 

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Jennifer Gravel, a senior staffer at the Department of City Planning, even penned an op-ed for the New York Times last fall about being unnecessarily forced to return to work in the office as she struggled with child care. Gravel also said her return posed a COVID exposure risk for her children, who were too young to be vaccinated. 

“Forcing employees for whom in-person work is not essential to return to the office could create a crisis,” Gravel wrote at the time. “I’m not the only city employee considering quitting because of the mayor’s order. According to an internal survey in July completed by 73 percent of my agency’s employees, 40 percent said they would seek another job if the city stopped allowing remote work. Many have started looking. Others have already left.”

A similar pattern appears to be playing out at HPD. Many senior staffers — including much of the agency’s senior development and legal staff — have departed in the past year and not been replaced. As the Times noted last week, one deputy general counsel and two associate deputy general counsels who served on the agency’s real estate transactions team have quit in recent months. And HPD’s deputy commissioner for development left in April for a contract position with the state housing agency. HPD and its financing arm, the New York City Housing Development Corporation, are handling significantly fewer bond and mortgage deals than they normally do, according to sources familiar with the agency. 

Starting in March 2020, HPD and many other city agencies effectively froze hiring for a year and a half because of the pandemic, which now makes it harder to fill positions. 

“They’ve had trouble recovering from the early conservative measures to respond to the budget crunch [in 2020],” said Brendan Cheney, director of policy and communications for New York Housing Conference. “Mayor Adams inherited this when he took it over in January.”

Project managers, who shepherd affordable housing developments from start to finish, are in particularly short supply. In March 2020, HPD had 176 project managers, and now it has 143, a 19 percent decline, according to the NYHC report. The shortage of real estate staff is so severe that HPD warns applicants for low-income housing tax credits that it may take up to a year to assign a project manager to a given development. 

The agency also has 140 vacancies on its code enforcement team, which currently has 470 inspectors responsible for investigating housing code violations across the five boroughs. Staff shortages at HPD and the city Department of Social Services, which handles supportive housing applications and housing for homeless New Yorkers, are even slowing the process of leasing up completed affordable housing projects. It now takes 371 days to lease lottery units in a new building, per the report, and 10 percent of supportive housing units are vacant. On average, 314 people apply for each income-restricted housing unit that the city creates.

“It’s making projects more expensive because projects are taking longer to complete,” said Cheney. “It’s costing developers and the city money. Even completed units are staying vacant longer. People who could move into projects have to wait. It’s inefficient and delays affordable housing at a time when it’s desperately needed.”

Ultimately, NYHC thinks the city has to be willing to raise salaries and offer employees more flexibility if it wants to compete in a tight labor market with the real estate and legal industries. HPD is required to start new staffers at the bottom of a pay scale, which for agency attorneys is $63,228. For housing development specialists, it’s $65,640. Many qualified candidates for these positions can earn twice as much in the private sector and continue working remotely. 

“Because they’re having a hard time hiring and retaining staff, they are having a hard time meeting their housing goals,” Cheney said. “It’s going to be hard to compete with the private sector if there’s more flexibility in the private sector.”

While it’s unclear whether Mayor Eric Adams plans to address these core issues with the city’s hiring practices and workforce, he did tell reporters yesterday that he might allow city staffers to work from home one day a week in the future. 

Adams said in a statement that his administration was “doing a complete analysis of what we have been doing with housing. We’re looking at why is it taking so long? Why are we retraumatizing people by having them tell the stories over and over again when we have the data? We are looking at what units are available. How many people have vouchers that are being ignored? So there’s a complete analysis of the dysfunctionality of housing in this city… I’ve inherited a broken city with broken systems and we can either put a band-aid on top of these broken systems, or you can go to the core and fix them.”

Rebecca Baird-Remba can be reached at rbairdremba@commercialobserver.com