Median rents in N.Y.C. have dropped, but that’s not helping essential workers.


Two things have been true since the pandemic flattened New York’s rental market last March: Prices have fallen sharply, but not for the people who need relief most.

Now a new report shows how little those price cuts have helped the more than a million New Yorkers the city calls essential workers.

From mid-March to the end of 2020, there were 11,690 apartments citywide that were considered affordable to essential workers, up more than 40 percent from a year before, according to the listing website StreetEasy. But that share represented just 4 percent of the total market-rate inventory in the city.

Essential workers — a broad category that includes teachers, bus drivers and grocery clerks, among others — make an average of about $56,000 a year. Using a common calculation to measure affordability, based on 30 percent of gross income, the highest comfortable rent on that salary is about $1,400 a month.

Record rent cuts have not bridged the gap. In January, the median monthly asking rent in Manhattan was $2,750, a 15.5 percent drop from the year prior, according to StreetEasy. Brooklyn and Queens also had record cuts of 8.6 percent, dropping to $2,395 and $2,000.

“It highlights a tale of two cities,” said Nancy Wu, an economist with StreetEasy, noting that the biggest price cuts have tended to occur in pricey neighborhoods in Manhattan, where only 12 percent of essential workers live. Neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, where roughly half of that work force resides, often had smaller discounts, or lost affordable inventory, because of high demand.

But most of Manhattan’s affordable apartments were studios, Ms. Wu said, while nearly half of essential workers have at least one child.

Of course, many New Yorkers spend more on rent than they can comfortably afford. In 2018, the latest year data were available, almost 53 percent of New Yorkers were rent-burdened, meaning they spent more than 30 percent of their gross income on rent, according to the New York University Furman Center.


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