In the last couple of years, seeing cities in other countries, I’ve had another belated realization: how unlikely it is that in by far the biggest and the densest city in the U.S., so many people, including me, live in houses. Think about what that means the next time you swear about how the rent, or mortgage, is too damn high.
In São Paolo, Brazil, the biggest city in South America, skyscrapers shoot up like weeds wherever the eye turns, with no Empire State Building to serve as a North Star, and houses — fenced in and guarded — are a mark of huge wealth. In Buenos Aires, basically everyone lives in apartments.
Compare that to here, where even in Midtown, three-, four- and five-story buildings remain the norm on the streets (though not the avenues). Much of the Bronx, Queens, Staten Island and even Brooklyn are populated by far-from-rich homeowners.
Which is great for those of us who live in them, but their ubiquity and human scale mean that there’s little room left to build up and add more housing, even as the population, and rents, continue their 30-year surge to record highs. It’s a rise that’s lasted long enough now to consider the possibility that we might be witnessing a fundamental change in the nature of urban living, not just a cyclical rise. To offer some protection from that rise, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg built or preserved (mostly the latter) 165,000 affordable (as in subsidized) units, and prices kept rising. Mayor de Blasio has promised 200,000 and, unless interest rates surge and the economy goes south, expect prices to keep rising.
Bloomberg also rezoned huge swaths of the city — 40% of it over 12 years — upzoning main streets, little-use industrial patches and parts of the waterfront to allow bigger buildings while downzoning many neighborhoods and side streets to protect them from outsize developments. Those changes protected neighborhood character, but did so at the expense of new housing. They also mean many of the easiest opportunities to allow bigger development have already been claimed. The simple way out of this Chinese finger trap, where the more subsidized housing we have, the more outrageously expensive it gets for everyone not lucky enough to have it, is allowing more density — an approach largely favored by an unlikely coalition of developers, trade unionists and affordable housing advocates.
But there are serious obstacles. The cost of building up in the city is obscenely high (which is why every new residential building is a “luxury” one, at least to start with — developers need to bring in a lot of money to cover the cost of construction). New people need new infrastructure — more trains and schools and police precincts and on and on. Assembling parcels of land for big projects is an expensive, risky enterprise. And with a flood of foreign money invested in our real estate (and not just luxury Manhattan apartments), too much new construction is doing little if anything to relieve overcrowding.
Mostly though, building up is opposed by basically anyone who already lives anywhere that’s humanly scaled. Think of it as a fight between those of us already here, protecting what we have, and the needs of those who might join us — between the city’s present and its future in some sense. Will your kids be able to afford it here?
In every neighborhood, the watchword is the same: character. New Yorkers are invested in their homes, and they don’t take changes to the nature of them lightly.
In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, for instance, where old industrial buildings dominated for decades, homeowners are fighting for landmark status to protect the neighborhood’s lovely brownstones from developers.
Affordability and character are, finally, competing interests. Where big buildings have gone up outside Manhattan — on Park Slope, Brooklyn’s Fourth Ave., for instance — they’ve been characterized by ugly, boxy designs, often cut off from and out of scale with their environment, cutting their residents off from neighborhood life.
Finally, adding anything like enough units to bring supply in line with demand (in a city where there’s been an official “housing emergency” continually since the end of World War II) means betting that the good times, at least for owners, will go on. That’s a huge gamble: Arrows rarely just keep rising.
Bottom line: If de Blasio is serious about making housing more affordable, not just extracting a bit more from developers and at best treading water, he’s going to need to ruffle the sensibilities of existing neighborhoods, to give us a denser, taller city.