Learning from the post-Sandy housing crisis

Leave a comment

Even as the winds were still dying down, real estate offices all over the city were setting up as donation centers. In the days after the storm, hundreds of real estate agents from numerous firms could be found driving supplies out to damaged areas and running food and clean water up to people trapped in high rises.

It makes sense that real estate professionals would be on the frontlines of the relief effort. They’re ideally suited to the task. Agents are used to traveling all over the city in the course of their daily business. They’re more likely to have cars than New Yorkers in most other professions. They may even know back routes to get around roads blocked by debris.

As valuable as all of these real estate agents were as volunteers, though, you have to wonder if they couldn’t have been put to better use. Why weren’t New York’s real estate companies immediately tapped for their most precious resource: knowledge of available housing?

Over a month after the storm, NYC is facing the worst housing crisis in recent memory. There are 1,000 New Yorkers living in hotel rooms, and as the temperature drops, vastly more are expected to need temporary housing. New York is a renter’s city. So where was the renter’s solution?

Why, if we thought numerous homes could be destroyed by Sandy, did we not have a system in place to help the displaced find new places to live?

And when we realized the extent of the damage Sandy had done to NYC housing, why wasn’t the first thing we heard from the mayor’s office, “Brokers of New York, we need your help”?

Why, in a city where real estate offices are as common as bodegas, were multiple government agencies directing people who had lost their homes to go to FEMA’s woefully inadequate temporary housing search?

Why, instead were brokerages reduced to putting cardboard signs in their windows reading, “APTS FOR SANDY VICTIMS,” because they didn’t know where to go to offer their services to people in need?

Over the last month, city, state, and federal officials have worked together to create programs to assist homeowners, like the Rapid Repairs program. These are wonderful, necessary programs, but they don’t help people who need roofs over their heads tonight. Only now are these officials meeting to figure out how to put together a database of vacant apartments for Sandy victims. No easy feat, given New York’s notoriously low vacancy rate.

So why not ask for help from the brokerages of New York, who track available units for a living? Why issue press releases asking landlords to convert their units to temporary housing, but not ask real estate agents—many of whom deal with landlords face-to-face on a daily basis—to speak to landlords about that very thing? After all, face-to-face pleas are always more compelling than written ones. Any real estate agent could tell you that.

It’s clear that we need a system for compiling and setting people up with temporary housing in this kind of emergency. Perhaps a coalition of top rental brokerages that can be activated in a crisis, like one might call up the National Guard. It’s not easy to get real estate companies to work together, but the industry’s response after the storm proves that it can be done. For now, though, all I can say is this:

If you lost your home in the storm, and you need an apartment for short or long-term, don’t forget your friendly neighborhood brokerage. There isn’t an agent in the city who wouldn’t drop what they’re doing to help.