In Defense of Density

New construction isn’t the only solution to New York’s affordable housing crisis, but the Left is wrong to dismiss it outright.

Ari Paul has a problem with New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio’s housing plans. Sure, he admires de Blasio’s push for pre-K, his confrontation with charter supporters, his tangling with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and many of the people he’s picked to lead his administration. But when De Blasio allowed the developer of the Domino Sugar plant in Williamsburg to build taller residential towers, even in exchange for adding more affordable housing units, this was a clear reveal that de Blasio was unlikely to escape becoming just another tool of the developers — the real estate “titans are going to call the economic shots.”

The problem with Paul’s analysis is that it acts as if the problems of working class New York has been housing construction run amok — when the problem has been the exact reverse. Manhattan in the last century, in fact, saw a decrease in population from over 2.3 million people in 1910 to less than 1.6 million today. This was counterbalanced by growth of semi-suburban housing in places like Queens, but the core of the city was emptied of hundreds of thousands of people in favor of commercial development.

The inevitable result was rising rents in the central city and, with zoning blocking most new housing there, that demand for housing has rippled out to northern Manhattan and surrounding boroughs, driving up rents and housing prices there as well.

Without more housing construction, prices will just keep rising and more working class New Yorkers will be driven out of the city. Yes, Paul is right that more luxury housing by itself is not the sole solution — although more luxury housing means that developers don’t buy up as much currently affordable housing and “rehab” it for the professional class — but that’s why the Left needs a much more serious plan to address the housing issue and development in the city more generally.

As Paul argues, real estate is to New York like oil is to Texas. But progressive oil-rich countries like Chávez’s Venezuela didn’t decide leaving the oil in the ground was a solution; they redirected the profits of that natural resource to the working class.

De Blasio (as Paul acknowledges) is working to do a bit of that, but where we might agree is that we need to do far more to really reclaim the city as a place that supports working class communities. He references the organizing effort I’ve launched called MORE NYC, which aims to “go big” in doing just that, but argues that pro-density folks like me see “every park, every historic home, and every courtyard as an unused blight that needs to be replaced with a skyscraper.” But he fails to explain what’s wrong with keeping and even expanding our libraries and other public institutions, while building more housing above them, and even adding public parks and playgrounds on the roofs of the new housing.

Paul argues that the problems with the Domino plant deal is that public amenities end up being defined by the developers in these deals. In this we agree. A key part of the argument MORE NYC is making is that, while deals like the one at Domino setting aside units for affordable units are far better than the real estate giveaways all too common in the past, the city would do far better directly assessing inclusionary zoning fees and using the money to build affordable housing itself. It could put the housing where it’s most needed and in the form best designed to serve the public, whether direct public housing or mixed-use affordable housing units that take advantage of federal and private capital investments.

This is not a small reform. By directly assessing and raising fees that go to the public, the leverage of federal and other monies to build affordable housing would be tremendous. In fact, local affordable housing efforts receive roughly ten federal and private dollars for every local dollar spent, meaning that instead of getting say the 700 units currently proposed for the Domino plant, the city could build 7,000 affordable units if it just assessed a fee equivalent to the value of those units.

And if those market rate units were built in the even more expensive neighborhoods of lower Manhattan, and affordable housing built in the cheaper land price zones of northern Manhattan and transit-accessible areas of the boroughs, that land price differential would yield even higher multiples. A relatively conservative estimate is that if the city assessed a 30 % inclusionary zoning fee on the price of all new construction in lower Manhattan, building 100,000 units there would yield something on the order of $43 billion — enough to build literally millions of affordable housing units.

Yes, the global elite would get their Manhattan penthouses, but far more working class New Yorkers would actually be able to afford to live in the City. And hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers would have jobs building and then maintaining those units.

This is not treating the city as a commodity, but recognizing that the skyline of the City is a natural resource like oil (although an incredibly eco-friendly one, since moving people into New York cuts their energy use by something like 70 percent). What the Left needs is a real plan and a strong coalition to assess heavy taxes on that resource with inclusionary zoning fees, then redirect those fees into affordable housing and the transit and educational infrastructure to support an expanded working class community here.