From the Heartland to the Hudson, access to housing is a struggle and solutions aren’t simple
This year, KBIA and the Missouri School of Journalism have been involved with a reporting project called the News Ambassadors. Two KBIA reporters worked with a pair of reporters from Columbia University in New York City for the last few months. The idea was to look at two seemingly different communities: Moberly, MO, and Flatbush, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, in New York City. The project involved community outreach, including listening session events in both communities in October. We wanted to find an issue to cover that is important to both communities, that we might not be covering well enough now, and see what we could learn by covering that issue in both communities at the same time. Here’s what we found.
By the numbers, these communities look starkly different. Flatbush has about 100,000 people, and is majority Black, and Moberly has 14,000 and is majority white. Flatbush is majority Democrat and renters outnumber homeowners. The opposite is true in Moberly.
Residents who attended the News Ambassadors community meetings had more in common than you might think, but one thing really stood out - both places have serious problems with housing.
After a fiscal crisis in New York City in 1975, Caribbean immigrants moved into Flatbush apartments formerly occupied by white residents. Those immigrants took buildings in disrepair and worked together as a community to improve the neighborhood. Now, wealthier people are gentrifying the neighborhood.
Moberly had a crisis, too. As recently as 2015, the city was the target of corporate fraud, which hit the city’s credit score hard. Moberly was once a railroad hub, so over its history it has experienced several ups and downs. This time, residents and community groups have sought creative solutions to this crisis.
In Flatbush, “It takes the city; you can't create affordability.”
In Flatbush, small quaint houses give way to six-story brick apartment buildings. Ocean Avenue is a busy shopping corridor filled with people and traffic. We asked residents to describe their neighborhood to us.
“Hardcore… community-oriented,” said Corazon Valiente.
“Familial,” said Tricia Ben-Davies.
“Creative… resilient,” said Robert Elstein.
“Honest,” said Charlie Rinehart-Jones.
Resident Pauline Brown called the rent she paid back in 1996 "beautiful."
“Back in the days, for my rent was, like, $580. And now rents are like $18(00)-$1900 for a one bedroom,” Brown said.
After inflation, that original 1996 rent would be about $1100 in today's money. People living in Flatbush have to make the housing work somehow. Valiente said it’s a constant struggle.
“A lot of my neighbors have been pushed out that they couldn't afford to stay here. We all kind of live packed into apartments and things like that, because pooling our money together makes it affordable,” Valiente said.
It’s a general rule of thumb that you should spend no more than 30% of your monthly income on rent. For the average income in Flatbush - $38,000 - a person would want to spend no more than about a thousand dollars a month for rent. But the median rent in Flatbush for a one bedroom is more than double that.
Outsiders with well-paying jobs move into the community to take advantage of lower rents, gentrifying the neighborhood. But there’s high turnover. Yves Vilus is the executive director of Erasmus Neighborhood Federation, a Flatbush community group working in housing. He said many new residents don’t stay for long.
“So because of that, whenever a tenant moves out, the landlord has the right to raise the rent,” Vilus said.
Low-income families in New York City have options to live in rent-stabilized or rent-controlled housing, public housing, Section 8 housing or other programs. But even with all these options, there’s a severe shortage of available affordable housing, and residents in Flatbush struggle to find apartments that match their incomes.
"Anytime I see those listings for affordable housing, that's not affordable for me at all,” Valiente said.
So how can the housing crisis in Flatbush be solved?
“In the early days, people would actually take over the building, clean it out and then fix it up with their own labor,” said Andrew Reicher, the executive director of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB).
UHAB supports New Yorkers who want to take over their buildings as Limited Equity Co-ops, where the residents own their building and are responsible for management and upkeep, making their lives more affordable and stable. But, Reicher said residents need lower tax rates or low interest government loans to afford these homes.
“But it takes the city; you can't create affordability,” Reicher said.
To the city government’s credit, in early December, Mayor Eric Adams announced the “Get Stuff Built” initiative. The City aims to have 500,000 new homes built in the next decade to ease the affordable housing crisis, half of these in the next year.
“Today, we are saying 'Yes,' to more housing; 'Yes,' to getting stuff built. We are going to build faster, we are going to build everywhere and we are going to build together," Adams said, speaking at the event in December.
Until the crisis eases, residents in Flatbush hope to be able to afford to stay in the community they love.
In Moberly, owning a home means owning its legacy
Briana Frieda and her 7-year-old daughter Delaney are presenting the 140-year-old home their family is renovating in Moberly.
“It's covered in dust right now, but you can see another layer of flooring here. And then under that is another layer of the original hardwood,” Briana said.
“And then another layer and then another layer,” Delaney piped in.
“Right, yeah,” Briana said, laughing.
The historic home was what drew the Friedas to the community. It was built in a different world than the Moberly of today: when it was a railroad town, with vibrant manufacturing and other industries. Most of that has disappeared, but the houses remain.
“Walking in, it just felt like it had a story, had something different about it for me at least,” Briana Frieda said.
But investing in one of the town’s derelict homes is not without major costs. Frieda recognizes it's not something everyone can take on. They took out a construction loan on top of the mortgage.
“We also had family members that helped us with the down payment, and who have helped with the blood, sweat and tears part of it,” Briana Frieda said.
Census data shows 55% of Moberly residents own homes. But like the Frieda’s new home, the housing stock is aging.
Things aren’t much better for renters.
According to 2021 census data, the median household income in Moberly is around $40,000 per year. Median gross rent in Moberly over the last five years was $686 per month, putting the typical Moberly rent well below the 30% rule.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The town’s poverty rate is over 21%, and low income earners in Moberly experience a similar problem to Flatbush: the demand for affordable rental properties is higher than the supply.
Carla Potts is the Deputy Director for Housing Development at Northeast Community Action Corporation.
“I can't think of anything more frustrating than to get a section eight voucher and to be so close to, you know, having some help. And then it just, you can't use it,” Potts said.
That’s because they can’t find a rental unit that qualifies.
Potts said many of the people who do essential jobs in the community, at the nearby Walmart distribution center, the hospital and schools are priced out of the market.
Federal and state investment is most often done in urban areas where there’s a denser population and the need is more acute. Housing development in communities like Moberly only succeeds when local government, organizations like Potts’s, and the private sector work together.
“Housing isn't just a problem of people who don't have enough money. Housing is a problem for economic development. Housing is a problem for cities that want to grow,” Potts said.
Potts said bringing the business community to the table is essential.
One person trying to address this issue is Jerry Swartz.
“It's a grand old building. When I, literally, bought that building…it was, everything was wet in it…and it was full of nothing but debris and things that tenants have left,” Swartz said in a building in downtown Moberly.
Swartz grew up in Moberly, and remembers it thriving. He runs an insurance company and in the 1980s started buying and renovating historic buildings in downtown Moberly that were in disrepair. It’s a business for him, but also a passion. Many of those Swartz has renovated now include apartments.
“We’ve got a salon over here, this is just kind of a warehouse. This has got a common hall down the middle of it and both sides are going to be huge massive loft apartments. They're going to be really cool,” Swartz said.
Along with about ten buildings downtown, Swartz has also restored multiple single-family homes in the community. He’s not expecting anyone else to swoop in and solve Moberly’s housing challenges: it’ll be up to folks like him. Doing the work, investing in Moberly, building by building.
“We are making the city, the community a better place,” Swartz said.
Connecting some of the dots
The News Ambassadors’ David Newtown played the stories for Juan Pablo Garnham. He’s a researcher and journalist at the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. The Eviction Lab studies evictions throughout the U.S. to better understand poverty in America.
“First gut reaction, it's—I'm not surprised. But it's still really, really interesting to see how access to affordable housing is so difficult no matter where you are in the U.S.,” Garnham said about Flatbush and Moberly.
Garnham said there are some universal reasons why America is having a housing crisis.
“Well, the supply is low, you know, and the rents have increased more than incomes. And on top of that, becoming a homeowner after the subprime mortgage crisis has become so much more difficult,” Garnham said.
These issues have hit all of the U.S. hard. In places like New York City, Garnham said buying a house is out of reach for many residents.
“Becoming a homeowner in New York City might have been always difficult or it's been difficult for a while. But it was possible maybe 50 years ago,” Garnham said.
New York City struggles with a lack of land. Garnham said the struggles in rural towns like Moberly are different, but struggles all the same.
“Obviously land is cheaper in rural areas. But also, there might be a lot of other costs involved like that you might not have in other sites, including, you know, transportation, having the people to build something. A small city or a rural area might not be interesting for investors, you know. So that makes everything more difficult,” Garnham said.
Garnham said the way people think about housing in this country is too removed from the communities they’re a part of.
“A lot of times we see housing as a separate issue, you know, and instead of housing, I think that we should talk about cities, and we should talk about neighborhoods, and building neighborhoods,” Garnham said.
This was a special project by the News Ambassadors. You heard the reporters: Caoilinn Goss and Jana Rose Schleis in Missouri, and David Newtown and Trisha Mukherjee in New York. Editors for the project were Naomi Starobin and Ryan Famuliner. Raye Rawes was the project facilitator, Lorraine Hess was the Project Coordinator and Evelyn Messinger was the Executive Producer. Special thanks to Kathy Kiely at the University of Missouri, Sally Herships at Columbia University, Eleana Tworek, Jene-Anne Pangue and Athena Rees. We also want to thank the people in Moberly and Flatbush that attended community events this fall to help come up with the topics we’d be covering.