Meet Rachel Fee, executive director of the New York Housing Conference, a nonprofit affordable housing policy and advocacy organization.

Rachel Fee
Rachel Fee

The broad-based coalition works to advance city, state, and federal policies and funding to support the development and preservation of decent and affordable homes for all New Yorkers.

The industry veteran discusses rising insurance costs and other big issues that her organization is working on this year.

What was your first housing-related job?

My first housing-related job was with the New York City Department of Housing Preservation & Development as a project manager in the Office of Development, working on supportive and senior housing. In this role, I managed 10-plus projects from start to finish, including underwriting, low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) financing, land disposition, and loan closings. I learned about the hurdles to housing production and the absurd number of different financing sources necessary for one project. The job also taught me a lot about the political hurdles to site supportive housing through many hours of contentious community board meetings.

Your organization recently examined escalating insurance costs that have hit affordable housing. What are a few key takeaways from your study?

Skyrocketing insurance costs are threatening the financial viability of affordable housing, driving up development costs and requiring more subsidies. Faced with this crisis, we conducted research to find that insurance premiums have doubled over the past four years, increasing an average of 26% each year. The average annual cost to insure an affordable unit in New York City is now $1,770, compared to $869 just four years ago. In some instances, in the Bronx, we saw rates as high as $3,081 per unit.

We found that the average increase in insurance costs would decrease cash flow by 60% or more for affordable housing built in 2019 or earlier. Significantly reduced cash flow means less money for building reserves and repairs, as well as difficulty for refinancing.

Our findings also show jarring evidence that insurance carriers blatantly discriminate against affordable housing projects, in some cases completely refusing to provide coverage to homes just based on where they are located. We’ve been talking to experts and housing developers across the country, and it’s clear that this isn’t just a problem in New York. We need to come together as affordable housing advocates, developers, providers, and policymakers to find solutions, or affordable housing will be in serious financial risk.

What else is the New York Housing Conference working on this year?

We’re excited to be leading the Yes to Housing coalition, a group of over 125 members advocating for zoning reforms in New York City that will make it easier to build more housing in every neighborhood. “City of Yes for Housing Opportunity” includes several forward-thinking provisions to spur housing development, including a density bonus for affordable housing; removing barriers to moderate density in more neighborhoods, including around transit and on campuses; allowing for more conversions to residential housing; and removing parking mandates. We’re committed to working closely with community members and leaders in government to improve our housing and planning policies and ensure that no one is left behind and that everyone has access to safe, affordable housing.

We are also growing our Rising Leaders Network (RLN), a professional organization of more than 500 early career professionals in the affordable housing and community development space. Through networking, education, advocacy, and volunteer opportunities, the RLN allows young housing professionals to build their networks, to gain experience, and to get involved in policy discussions and with issues affecting our industry. We’re proud to support the next generation of leaders in affordable housing.

Why affordable housing matters:

Housing is a basic human right. Stable, quality, affordable homes are the essence of what every individual and every family requires to be safe, secure, and to thrive.

On an economic level, affordable housing is critical for a successful and equitable economy. Right now, employers across New York state are struggling to find talent and staff who can afford to live near their jobs. We’re seeing an outward migration in New York because of skyrocketing housing costs. It’s impacting renters and homeowners at every level and leaving low-income New Yorkers extremely vulnerable.

Share with us an interesting statistic or fact about affordable housing in New York:

Our New York City Housing Tracker shows that although we are building new housing in New York, the distribution is incredibly disparate. In 2022, nine NYC community districts produced as much new housing as the remaining 50 community districts. Over a six-year period, 16 City Council districts produced more than 2,000 affordable units, while 17 districts produced fewer than 400 units. The distribution of new housing is incredibly unequal across the city, and it’s putting strain on the neighborhoods that are adding housing. Provisions like City of Yes will help to ensure every neighborhood is doing its part to address the housing crisis.

How will affordable housing be different 10 years from now?

We need to expand resources at the federal level and address zoning barriers at the state and local levels to move the dial on housing affordability.

I’m hoping that in 10 years we will start to make progress toward establishing a national housing safety net with rental assistance for all households in need, funded on the mandatory side of the budget like Social Security. Our nation’s failure to address housing insecurity for its most vulnerable citizens, including seniors, people with disabilities, and families with young children, is unacceptable. Expanding the Housing Choice Voucher program will remain a top priority for us to reduce homelessness and improve housing stability.

While it may take more than a decade for a federal safety net, I do believe we can make real strides in increasing affordable housing supply through LIHTC expansion. There is solid bipartisan support to address the issue, and we came very close to lowering the “50% test,” a requirement that blocks new housing creation.

We expect to see results in the upcoming months and years on zoning reforms in New York and beyond. We are very optimistic about New York City’s City of Yes citywide zoning changes, and the New York Legislature recently passed a budget incentivizing affordable housing with new tax incentives and a range of new tools to build more housing.