Remember when Ted Cruz tried to take Donald Trump down by accusing him of having “New York values”? It didn’t work, of course, mainly because it addressed the wrong form of hatred. Cruz was trying to associate his rival with social liberalism – but among Republican voters distaste for, say, gay marriage runs a distant second to racial enmity, which the Trump campaign is catering to quite nicely, thank you.
But there was another reason associating Trump with New York was ineffective: Old-fashioned anti-urban rants don’t fit with the realities of modern American urbanism. Time was when big cities could be portrayed as arenas of dystopian social collapse, of rampant crime and drug addiction. These days, however, we’re experiencing an urban renaissance. New York, in particular, has arguably never been a more desirable place to live – if you can afford it.
Unfortunately, ever fewer people can. That’s the bad news. The good news is that New York’s government is trying to do something about it.
So, about affordability: In the first quarter of this year, the average apartment sold in Manhattan cost more than $2 million. That number will come down a bit. In fact, the buying frenzy has already cooled off. Still, such numbers are an indicator of a housing market that has moved out of the reach of ordinary working families. True, prices slumped during the national housing bust of 2006-09, but then they began rising again, far outpacing gains in family income. And similar stories have been unfolding in many of our major cities.
The result, predictably, is that the urban renaissance is very much a class-based story. Upper-income Americans are moving into high-density areas, where they can benefit from city amenities; lower-income families are moving out of such areas, presumably because they can’t afford the real estate.
You may be tempted to say, so what else is new? Urban life has become desirable again, urban dwellings are in limited supply, so wouldn’t you expect the affluent to outbid the rest and move in? Why aren’t urban apartments like beachfront lots, which also tend to be occupied by the rich?
But living in the city isn’t like living on the beach, because the shortage of urban dwellings is mainly artificial. Our big cities, even New York, could comfortably hold quite a few more families than they do. The reason they don’t is that rules and regulations block construction. Limits on building height, in particular, prevent us from making more use of the most efficient public transit system yet invented – the elevator.
Now, I’m not calling for an end to urban zoning. Cities are rife with spillovers, positive and negative. My tall building may cut off your sunlight; on the other hand, it may help sustain the density needed to support local stores, or for that matter a whole city’s economic base. There’s no reason to believe that completely unregulated building would get the balance right.
But building policies in our major cities, especially on the coasts, are almost surely too restrictive. And that restrictiveness brings major economic costs. At a national level, workers are on average moving, not to regions that offer higher wages, but to low-wage areas that also have cheap housing. That makes America as a whole poorer than it would be if workers moved freely to their most productive locations, with some estimates of the lost income running as high as 10 percent.
Furthermore, within metropolitan areas, restrictions on new housing push workers away from the center, forcing them to engage in longer commutes and creating more traffic congestion.
So there’s a very strong case for allowing more building in our big cities. The question is, how can higher density be sold politically? The answer, surely, is to package a loosening of building restrictions with other measures. Which is why what’s happening in New York is so interesting.
In brief, Mayor Bill de Blasio has pushed through a program that would selectively loosen rules on density, height, and parking as long as developers include affordable and senior housing. The idea is, in effect, to accommodate the rising demand of affluent families for an urban lifestyle, but to harness that demand on behalf of making the city affordable for lower-income families too.
Not everyone likes this plan. Sure enough, there were noisy protests at the City Council meeting that approved the measure. And it will be years before we know how well it has worked. But it’s a smart attempt to address the issue, in a way that could, among other things, at least slightly mitigate inequality.
And may I say how refreshing it is, in this ghastly year, to see a politician trying to offer real solutions to real problems? If this is an example of New York values in action, we need more of them.