Law in Contemporary Society

A Future for NYC Housing

-- By KieranSingh2001 - 27 May 2024

Housing supply and prices are undeniably a problem in New York City. Despite its reputation as a dense city, NYC is limited by zoning. areas like Bushwick allow less density, and neighborhoods like Prospect Park South are sometimes restricted to houses or duplexes. Currently, around a million units in NYC are rent stabilized, meaning that landlords can only increase rent by a certain percentage each year. Affordable and stabilized units are hard to find, obtaining one sometimes depends on literally winning a lottery.


A 2018 Minneapolis rezoning plan allowed for the building of duplexes and triplexes on land that was previously zoned for single-family homes and eliminated parking minimums. Since the rezoning, rents increased by 1% in Minneapolis, and 14% in the state; homelessness also decreased dramatically. 1% over 5 years far underpaced the rate of inflation. With this in mind, rezoning NYC to allow taller, denser buildings across the board may ease the housing crisis, but there are political complications.

Historical and Political Obstacles to Rezoning

NYC has an infamous history with broad-scale city planning changes. Robert Moses, an immensely powerful bureaucrat, enacted citywide urban renewal, road, and public housing programs, often displacing poor people and minorities in the process. A proposal to stick a highway through SoHo received opposition from Jane Jacobs, an urban activist. Moses believed in top-down city planning, whereas Jacobs believed in community input. Moses promoted automobile-centered development, and Jacobs believed in (reasonable) density and walkability. Jacobs has won in terms of retrospective popular opinion, but her legacy points to multiple outcomes. Janette Sadik-Khan, the former commissioner of the NYC DoT? , and journalist Seth Solomonow, see her language and methods being deployed to oppose developments she would have approved of. In other words, "community control" has become a way of limiting the walkable communities jacobs wanted. According to urbanist Leo Goldberg, homeowners often have outsized influence in community decisions, and they want to protect their land values, which leads to advocating against upzoning, as it may reduce housing prices.

Opposition to upzoning, however, is not all self-interest. According to Village Preservation, an architectural and cultural preservation organization, A 2021 SoHo rezoning plan did not increase affordability due to the replacement of rent-regulated buildings with market-rate buildings. It may be easy to dismiss this sort of argument from a statistical perspective, but losing a rent-stabilized apartment is a massive loss to each individual affected. Moreover, Village Preservation has pointed out that areas with the least amount of construction (and the most landmarking) have had the lowest increase in rents, whereas the areas with the most construction have had the highest increase in rents. The Minneapolis data may be more on point, because there may be causal problems with assuming that places are more expensive because of development rather than the reverse. Regardless of the veracity of VP's analysis, the anti-rezoning viewpoint is politically salient and may cause trouble for any proposed rezoning plan. A prudent rezoning plan would address these concerns without dismissing them out of hand, which necessitates expansion of rent stabilization.

Rent Stabilization

Prominent urbanists like Roberta Gratz invoke the possibility of developers buying buildings with rent-regulated units after rezoning, replacing them with buildings that offer only market-rate housing. However, upzoning can occur counter to, or without, displacement. If swathes of the city were rezoned for maximum residential density, wealthier people and transplants may move into new market-rate units, and with a greater supply of market-rate units, it would lower the competition for units overall. This phenomenon, termed "filtering" by urban academics," applies mostly to the reduction in the price of older market rate units, and, unfortunately, evidence shows that a "politically unrealistic" amount of housing would have to be built to cause proper filtering. Still, it is good to think outside political realism, and a compromise could still ease competition for rent-controlled units. Additionally, NYC allows affordable housing to go higher than market-rate buildings.


The 421-a tax exemption could be expanded to incentivize higher percentages of affordable housing in these new developments. This way, rent-stabilized units can increase with rezoning. For people in existing units, current regulation requires that those forced to move after a demolition get moving assistance and stipends. With a much higher number of affordable units available, the city could extend assistance after demolition, guaranteeing a similarly-priced unit in the same general neighborhood. This abundance of affordable and stabilized housing units could allow residents to find rent-stabilized units more easily.

Final Thoughts

These ideas may have a hard time getting past the legislature or city council, and the dilemma between community control -- which may be far too slow to solve the housing crisis -- and a citywide plan -- which has unfortunate echoes of Moses' methods -- remains, but the current system is unsustainable. Moreover, while simple economic theory would posit that an increase in supply decreases the price of housing, the real-world data is much murkier. Minneapolis is the strongest, and most recent data point in favor of citywide upzoning, but previous data from upzonings in NYC has shown that the prices of housing did not go down in upzoned areas. This may, again, be related to the causal issue of more in-demand neighborhoods being more likely candidates for upzoning – meaning that rent would have gone up even more in a world without the rezoning. Still, the data shows that concerns of groups like VP and people like Gratz are not unfounded. The ambiguity of the data makes it even more pressing that large expansions in rent stabilization and construction of affordable housing be associated with upzoning. It’s possible that neither policy could work on its own – an expansion of rent stabilization without increased supply would relegate people’s fates to a lottery, and upzoning without a strong affordable housing policy may lead to displacement. The city should pursue these reforms in tandem so that her people have more housing security.

A very strong improvement.

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r13 - 06 Jun 2024 - 14:19:30 - EbenMoglen
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