Metropolis

New York’s Mayoral Candidates Fail the “Price of Housing” Question

The former U.S. housing secretary was off about Brooklyn real estate by $800,000. The former banker did even worse!

Shaun Donovan speaks at a mic during a press conference in New York City on March 18
Shaun Donovan was off by $800,000. David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

It’s a house in Brooklyn, Shaun. What could it cost, $10?

New York City mayoral candidate Shaun Donovan committed a gaffe that would have ground a Park Slope dinner party to a halt in an interview with the New York Times editorial board published on Tuesday, guessing that the median sales price of a home in Brooklyn is $100,000.

That may have been correct—during the Reagan administration, when Donovan was in high school. In reality, New York City’s largest borough had a median sales price of $900,000 in the first quarter of the year, according to city data published by analyst Jonathan Miller. That figure includes co-ops, condos, and one- to three-family homes.

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In relative terms, then, Donovan’s appraisal of the Brooklyn housing market is wrong in the same way it would be wrong to guess that a Big Mac meal costs $1, a can of Coke costs 12 cents, or a gallon of gas costs 40 cents. It’s a guess that makes George H.W. Bush look like a dairy industry analyst.

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And it’s not just wrong because New York City has insane real estate prices, though it does. The national median home sale in March was $330,000.

There are zero properties in Brooklyn for sale under $100,000 on the website StreetEasy. There are two under $200,000—one is a one-bedroom co-op in East Flatbush that needs some “TLC.” The other is a deli in Sunset Park that comes with a soda fridge and two meat slicers.

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Incredibly, Donovan’s guess was not the worst from the candidates’ interviews: Maya Wiley was out of touch by a greater dollar amount, with a venture of $1.8 million, though her miss will escape scrutiny by flattering the geographic biases and social fixations of the Times readership. Ray McGuire—a banker!—guessed $80,000 to $90,000.

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But what makes Donovan’s guess so flabbergasting is not just that he bought a house in Brooklyn two years ago for $2.3 million. It’s that he has spent his entire career as a housing expert: He was the head of New York’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development from 2004 to 2009, working on the preservation of affordable housing, and then spent five years as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as the nation’s top housing official! And he was pretty good at it! He’s also one of relatively few candidates who recognize that the city actually needs to build more housing.

Now, we could say that this $900,000 figure doesn’t mean that much. After all, just 30 percent of Brooklynites own their own homes. Furthermore, the inclusion of small income-generating rental properties is part of what makes that figure so high—in reality, if you’re paying $900,000 for a three-family property, you’re paying $300,000 a unit. Getting warmer for Donovan. If you included larger apartment buildings, and divided by the number of units, you might get closer still to $100,000 a unit.

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Was asking about buying in Brooklyn (compared with, say, renting in the Bronx) a “gotcha” question aimed precisely at the interests of New York Times readers in a city where most people will never own property? Yes. Perhaps Donovan has been laser-focused on rents! Or, as he told the Times in an email afterward, on “assessed value,” which is used to calculate property taxes and often comes in at 20 percent of market value or less.

And yet, and yet—you’re the housing guy and a Brooklyn homeowner in a city where real estate is as much the lingua franca as the travails of the local sports teams. A place where the cost of living is the preeminent concern, year after year. A city that built fewer new housing units in the 2010s than during the down-and-out 1970s. You’ve got to know that an apartment in Brooklyn costs more than one in Youngstown.

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