Would more buildings fix our affordable housing problems?

By Lucy Cohen Blatter  | September 20, 2016 - 1:59PM

It's a hot topic throughout New York City and the rest of the country: How can cities create more affordable housing and hold onto their middle-class residents?

Just last week, economist Issi Romem released a report indicating that suburban sprawl, highly unpopular as it may be, has a better track record of maintaining affordability than tall urban towers. The report was featured on BuildZoom, a site that connects people and companies with contractors. But Romem told Brick Underground that suburban sprawl has less potential here in New York than elsewhere. Here, greater density is the key for more affordable housing, he says. 

"If you could make the rest of the city as dense as Manhattan, that would really help New York's affordable housing," he says. 

The problem with creating suburban sprawl in the NYC metro area, he says, is that New York (complete with the 35 counties) is massive, and commutes are already long. Building out further would go far into places like Connecticut and New Jersey, and housing options there would be significantly less desirable because of the commute times required and the distance from Manhattan. "In the long run, it boils down to supply and demand: If you build enough housing it will be cheaper," he explains. "New York is so expensive because so many people want to live here, so creating more housing here would help calm things down."

And how could the city do that? "By relaxing height limits, making teardowns easier, and making it easier for developers to see places that are open for development," he says. "Imagine a NYC website that showed which landlords are open for development and where."

But would it ever happen here? "Highly unlikely," he says. The reason: politics, policy, and long-standing rules. "Expensive cities like New York and San Francisco would have to make unprecedented building changes to make things truly affordable."

Not everyone views density as the way to go. While Mayor Bill De Blasio seems to agree with Romem that the key to affordable housing lies in adding inventory, Andrew Berman, an affordable housing advocate and the executive director of the Greenwich Cillage Society for Historical Preservation, disagrees.

"New York is far and away the densest city in the U.S.—about twice as dense as the no. 2 most dense, San Francisco. But that said, New York is still the most expensive by most accounts. And in New York, the least dense places tend to be the less expensive ones."

Also, Berman adds, "there's a variable, and that's what's livable, and what's a maintainable quality of life. I have no doubt if we build enough to double the amount of housing, it would flood the market, and bring prices down, but we'd create unlivable communities, and it would weigh on our infrastructure."

He points to  Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and the far West Side near Hudson Yards, neighborhoods that have had the most construction in terms of both affordable housing and market rate housing over the last few years, "and yet those have seen the quickest and steepest increases in housing prices."


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