In a white-walled room on the first floor of a Hicksville Colonial, Gloria Hernandez rests her head on the queen-sized bed she shares with her two daughters. Her teenage son sleeps on a twin bed nearby.
Hernandez, 31, has been a single mother for the past three years. She spends her days working at a warehouse for $15 an hour. The room she rents costs $1,200 a month — 60% of her $2,000 monthly take-home pay.
"I had to have two jobs — one on the books, one off the books — in order to make all my expenses work," said Hernandez, who recently left her former employers. She now works only at the warehouse to support herself and her three children — ages 6, 10 and 14 — for whom she shares custody with their father.
The high cost of living that confines Hernandez and her children to a single room is a microcosm of an Islandwide real estate reality: a rental market characterized by low inventory and high demand. For many, to remain a Long Island resident means squeezing families into too-small units, submitting to long commutes and stretching inelastic incomes. For Hernandez, a private bathroom and use of the home’s kitchen, which she shares with her landlord's family, feel like perks.
WHAT TO KNOW
- A shortage of apartments has made finding affordable homes challenging for many on Long Island.
- More than half of all renters in Nassau and Suffolk spend more than 30% of their income on rent.
- Apartments have been built in larger numbers in many other suburban communities.
I had to have two jobs — one on the books, one off the books — in order to make all my expenses work.
— Gloria Hernandez, 31, of Hicksville
A report by the Suffolk County Legislature’s Welfare to Work Commission released in December concluded the "true definition of poverty on Long Island should be twice the federal government’s definition, or $55,500 for a family of four." Working full time at the current hourly minimum wage of $15 without overtime, Hernandez would make $31,200 a year. The commission estimated 20% of Long Islanders were at its defined poverty level.
Long Island rental market snapshot
Over the past decade, Long Island’s population growth has outpaced the growth of its rental stock, U.S. Census data shows; and rent rates have climbed. In Nassau and Suffolk counties, more than half of renters now spend more than 30% of their income on rent, according to 2021 census data.
In Nassau, the population grew by about 62,560 between 2010 and 2021, while the number of rented homes increased by about 3,740, according to the data. In that time, the median monthly rent has jumped from $1,407 to $1,940.
In the same period, Suffolk has grown by roughly 40,450 residents, but lost about 395 rented homes, census data shows. The median monthly rent rose from $1,427 in 2010 to $1,895 in 2021.
Lawrence Levy, dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, speculates that the total number of rented units may have fallen because fewer homeowners are renting out units in their houses, apartments were converted to co-ops, and due to other factors. Recent census data, which was collected during the COVID-19 pandemic, also might have undercounted rental homes because of changes in methodology, Levy and others said.
A 404-square-foot studio apartment in Oyster Bay listed at $1,375 per month in May was an anomaly and garnered high interest, Realtor Debra Viscusi of Laffey Real Estate said.
"I had over 200 phone calls on that," Viscusi said. "When it’s in that price market, we get inundated."
Listings at that price point are rare and fleeting. "When they come, they go very quickly," she said.
This has posed problems even for longtime renters, who have found themselves struggling to find alternative living arrangements when circumstances change.
[Long Islanders are] living in unpermitted basements, garages, attics … We’re seeing it more and more before people end up giving up and leaving.
— Michael Daly, an East End realtor and affordable housing advocate through East End YIMBY
"There’s so many people who have been renting for years and now find themselves in a position where they can’t afford to find a place, or there just are no places within their budget," said Michael Daly, an East End realtor and affordable housing advocate through East End YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard). "I’ve got a list, a running list of at least a dozen people at all times who are begging for any kind of rental under $3,000 a month, and there are virtually none in existence out here on the East End."
Daly described what he calls "the shadow industry of homeless." It includes Long Islanders living in cars or vans, couch surfing or living with friends, he said.
"They’re living in unpermitted basements, garages, attics," he added. "We’re seeing it more and more before people end up giving up and leaving."
To Daly, that residents are moving farther west or out of state makes sense.
"After a while, when you are convinced that your community just refuses to make a place for you, you lose that connection with your community," he said. "If your community doesn’t respect you, how can you respect it?"
Finding community on a tight budget
Five days a week, Petya Dimitrova and Michael Hinz spend three hours riding a midnight-blue Hyundai Sonata in the "trade parade" — the procession of workers who keep the Hamptons running but cannot afford to live there — from Manorville to Long Island’s East End and back. Hinz grew up in Sag Harbor, but housing costs and living expenses have pushed him farther west.
The couple and their three-legged cat, Ivar, share a one-bedroom apartment that costs them $1,950 a month, plus utilities, and affords Hinz, 34, the opportunity to continue doing the job he loves as a kennel manager for the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons in Wainscott. With a combined annual income of roughly $83,000, to live any farther east is not financially feasible, said Dimitrova, who works as an administrative assistant at Douglas Elliman in Sag Harbor.
"There is no way for us to remain anywhere in the Hamptons," said Dimitrova, 35.
Dimitrova and Hinz are comfortable. The blue-grey details of their loft apartment match Ivar's fur. Dimitrova is cultivating a flower garden on the patio the couple shares with a friendly neighbor. But the pair is conscious of budgeting, and sometimes the budget is tight. Takeout is limited to once or twice a week, and grocery store purchases are made carefully. And the requisite commute, for now, is just a fact of life.
In Dimitrova’s view, stereotypes of those who might qualify for affordable housing fuel resistance to the building of additional units.
'Nobody realizes that it’s administrative workers, that it’s people that work in the hospital, that it’s teachers; that it’s restaurant staff ... that will live in the potential affordable housing units.'
— Petya Dimitrova, 35, of Manorville
Credit: Steve Pfost
"Nobody realizes that it’s administrative workers, that it’s people that work in the hospital, that it’s teachers; that it’s restaurant staff," she said. "Those are the people — young people, young local people, who are trying to stay local — that will live in the potential affordable housing units."
When Dimitrova last inquired about availability in an affordable housing development in East Hampton, she said, she was told the waitlist was approximately eight years.
Across the Island, the rental market is rife with complications and residents making sacrifices to stay.
In Westbury, Darinel Velasquez, 25, lives with his twin brother, sister, niece, mother, stepfather and stepfather’s child in a six-bedroom house converted from a four-bedroom. He contributes $500 in rent monthly.
"I’ve been paying rent since I was 17," he said. "But that has to do with the fact that we needed additional income to maintain the mortgage."
Born on Long Island to parents who emigrated from El Salvador, Velasquez works as an organizer for New York Communities for Change. He logs 45 hours a week at a base rate of $21.25 an hour, for a total of about $50,000 annually.
Luckily, I have a positive relationship with my family. I’m grateful that we get along … But, regarding milestones in life, it does get a little frustrating.
— Darinel Velasquez, 25, of Westbury
About a year ago, when Velasquez’s parents were considering selling their home, he started looking at apartment listings. "That gave me a lot of anxiety, I’ll tell you that," he said.
Had he moved out on his own, he estimates his bills would have doubled or tripled. "Luckily, I have a positive relationship with my family. I’m grateful that we get along," Velasquez said. "But, regarding milestones in life, it does get a little frustrating."
The trajectory he imagined for his life — a career and an apartment, at least, by his late twenties — has proved imaginary. "I don’t know when that will happen," he said.
How the region became a rental desert
Single-family zoning was popularized after World War II, according to Alexander von Hoffman, a senior research fellow at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. Developer Levitt & Sons was one of the first in the country to build dozens of houses in one subdivision with the Island Trees community in Levittown, which used restrictive covenants to exclude people of color. This model spread throughout the nation, fueled by government policies that advanced segregation.
Long Islanders historically shunned apartments because of racist stereotypes about their occupants and their association with a city they were "escaping," Levy said. Remnants of this type of thinking — along with infrastructure and aesthetic concerns — have been a deterrent to creating more rental housing, experts said. About 18.2% of occupied homes on the Island are rented, 2021 census data shows.
Many suburban communities have similar origin stories; rental homes make up less than 20% of housing in nearly one-third of census tracts, according to a 2022 report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.
Still, New York towns and villages have more power over development than localities in many other states and are approving less housing, according to a 2020 report from the Furman Center, a New York University institution that studies housing and urban policy. From 2010 to 2018, Nassau and Suffolk issued fewer building permits per person than all but one suburban county in seven states with similar characteristics, the report said.
Local governments long have fought to control what is built in their boundaries. While in Atlanta for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in 1968, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller said a new agency would have the power to override local zoning and integrate the state while building affordable rental housing. The plan faced fierce backlash, according to the Furman report. The agency, now called Empire State Development, lost the authority to supersede zoning in the suburbs, but not in major cities — a paradigm that is largely intact today, regulations governing the agency show.
Throughout the years, Long Island and the rest of the metro area have maintained some of the most restrictive zoning in the nation, according to the Furman report. From 2001 to 2018, the Island built fewer homes than the number of jobs it gained, and competition for apartments pushed up prices.
Some on Long Island still have negative ideas about who lives in apartments, especially affordable ones, said Laura Harding, president of ERASE Racism, a Syosset-based nonprofit working to eliminate barriers to racial equity. They also might have a hard time imagining smaller apartment designs or creative alternatives to large buildings, she said.
"There’s just so much fearmongering," Harding said, noting that Long Islanders indicated in a survey that they want more housing. "We have a great opportunity now to really own that process … engage communities in designing housing for themselves, new members, young professionals, seniors."
Building for an affordable future
The rental market is unlikely to change without state intervention, according to the Furman Center report. Localities often lack political incentives to green-light apartments, research shows. Many consider projects one by one, hearing pushback from people near the proposal, but not support from potential tenants. Projects can present legitimate infrastructure challenges, particularly in areas without sewers, the Furman report said. But common concerns about apartments straining school districts and parking haven’t borne out in a number of cases, according to a Long Island Regional Planning Council report.
Other states have taken steps to reform land use in high-cost suburban areas, and New York should follow suit, according to academics who research housing. These experts haven't reached a consensus on which of several strategies is best.
Suburbia was born from top-down government planning. Nobody wants to recreate that.
— Eric Alexander, director of Vision Long Island
But a number agree that offering grants and other incentives hasn’t been sufficient.
"There needs to be some type of pressure coming from funding agencies,” said Robert Silverman, professor of urban and regional planning at the University at Buffalo. “Otherwise, a lot of times, local governments will just not necessarily participate in that type of housing development."
The Island’s state lawmakers recently helped defeat two attempts by Gov. Kathy Hochul to expand Albany’s role over local land use.
Several regional housing and social justice groups supported Hochul’s plans. Others said a mandate may set the stage for court battles and stall development. That’s “risky” when the region has been ramping up apartment construction through community-driven planning, said Eric Alexander, director of Vision Long Island in Northport, which promotes building rental homes near transit hubs and creating more affordable housing.
"Suburbia was born from top-down government planning," Alexander said. "Nobody wants to recreate that."
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Affordable rental resources
These organizations and government agencies may be able to connect Long Islanders with assistance and affordable units:
- The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Public and Indian Housing Customer Service Center answers questions on public housing and housing voucher programs at 800-955-2232. HUD has published a list of public housing authorities that operate these initiatives https://tinyurl.com/2p822dsf.
- The Community Development Corporation of Long Island owns affordable rental homes and helps others lease theirs. The nonprofit also administers Housing Choice and other federal voucher programs, which have significant waitlists. Call (631) 471-1215 or email email@example.com.
- Long Island Housing Services offers housing counseling services in Spanish and English. Call 631-567-5111 ext. 376 or email info@LIFairHousing.org.
- North Fork Housing Alliance provides housing counseling; 631-477-1070.
- Housing Help Inc. provides information, resources and rental listings to Long Islanders who fill out a short intake form at https://tinyurl.com/3m3549e8.
- The Long Island Housing Partnership offers free rental counseling in English and Spanish on such topics as unit affordability, tenant rights, fair housing issues and household budgeting. Call 631-435-4710 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The Economic Opportunity Commission of Nassau County facilitates the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, which offers rental, mortgage and utility assistance. Through federal funding, the program currently pays one month's rent for qualifying candidates. For more information, call or visit one of the organization's five locations: Port Washington, 516-883-3201; Glen Cove, 516-801-2672; Hempstead, 516-486-2800; Roosevelt/Freeport, 516-546-6121; Rockville Centre/Lakeview, 516-764-4500.
- The Economic Opportunity Council of Suffolk Inc., offers rental assistance to veterans through the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program; call Yanory Chicas at 631-289-2601. The organization also provides assistance through the referral-based HUD Rapid Rehousing program, which is available to individuals who have lived in a shelter for over a year and are referred by the Continuum of Care. Additionally, the EOC's family development centers can provide case management for individuals facing various housing challenges, including applying for Section 8 assistance. Call 631-289-2124.
- The Nassau County Department of Social Services offers temporary housing assistance based on income and resources. Call (516) 227-7403.
- The Suffolk County Department of Social Services offers temporary housing assistance based on income. Call 631-853-8714.