Despite being a long shot candidate when the New York City mayoral race began, Bill de Blasio won the election in a landslide. He won not only by talking about the problems of everyday people that so many politicians ignore, but also by proposing some very specific solutions. As a candidate, de Blasio focused on issues like curbing the abuses of stop-and-frisk and enacting universal pre-K. Once he enters into office, he'll need to show the voters that it was more than just empty talk.
The biggest challenge for de Blasio, however, will be containing the astronomical rise of the city's rents. The cost of housing all over New York is going up so quickly that many residents are wondering how they will afford a place to live within the next few years. Addressing the other issues won't be easy, but there are at least clear strategies for what to do next. The universal pre-K proposal will require state approval, and thus a diplomatic effort to get Gov. Cuomo on board. There have already been reforms to the stop-and-frisk program and crime hasn't increased significantly. But when it comes to the problem of affordable housing, it's not necessarily clear what de Blasio will be able to do.
The situation in New York City is hardly unique. Lots of coastal cities in the United States have seen housing prices skyrocket over the past two decades. In Boston, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, ordinary people are struggling to pay the rent.
The level of demand for urban residential space has changed a lot over the last 60 years. During the white flight era, the rents in many cities went way down. The nation's population growth was channeled into new suburbs. America made room for a growing number of citizens by spreading out.
But things have started to change over the past few decades, and particularly in just the last few years. Urban areas have gotten a lot safer. The suburban lifestyle has become less fashionable. More and more people, both from America and abroad, want to move to major metropolitan areas in the United States.
The problem is that the officials in charge of America's cities have not responded to how fast the trends are changing. An increasing number of potential buyers and renters are going after a limited number of apartments and other units. But few cities have made a real attempt to construct enough new buildings where these people can live, which is why rents have risen so dramatically. It's simple economics. Demand goes up. Supply stays the same. Prices keep climbing.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg is clearly aware of the dynamic driving up housing costs in New York. In a recent interview, he said that rising rents were a "good sign" of a vibrant economy. Bloomberg's tenure has been defined by falling crime and better public health, which has made the city a more attractive place to live. He's proud of his successes, as he should be. But he also appears unbothered by the rising cost of living that these new circumstances have created. Attracting more people to New York, without building more place to put them, is making the city increasingly unaffordable for the working and middle classes.
At a recent event, NYC Planning Director Amanda Burden greatly overestimated the number of permits that the Bloomberg administration has issued for residential units. She said that they authorized the construction of 30,000 units every year, a considerable amount, but still rents have continued the rise. However, as Steven Smith at Next City noted, the actual figure was more like 20,000 permits per year. It's not a crime to give an incorrect number off the top of your head. But the fact that Burden did not realize how few residential units have been built over the last decade certainly reveals some indifference toward making sure that there are enough apartments and condos to meet the demand.
As mayor, de Blasio would almost certainly make the construction of residential projects more of a priority. But just as Bloomberg's initiatives to address crime and disease helped to create an affordable housing crisis, the next mayor's efforts to contain out-of-control rents will create a new set of problems. A lot of New Yorkers are going to be unhappy if the city starts allowing developers to construct apartment buildings that are big enough to provide the amount of housing needed.
Currently, most new developments in New York face some sort of community opposition. Whenever almost any apartment complex is proposed, local residents find reasons to complain about it. Sometimes the complaints are legitimate problems, but usually they're about small things like details of the building's design or the fact that street parking will be harder to find. The truth is that most people simply don't want to see a large apartment structure built on their block. Big new buildings can transform a neighborhood, and no one wants to see their home change around them.
It's almost certain that de Blasio will face some sort of backlash if he really follows through with his affordable housing plan. It's going to require construction of a lot more residential units throughout the city to put a stop to the soaring rent increases. There will be plenty of negative press about people, both rich and poor, who oppose a development project. De Blasio will have to avoid making enemies, while still telling his constituents the hard truth. If you don't build more places for to put people as demand for New York housing continues rising, then the higher rental prices are going to push most of the low- and middle-class residents out of their neighborhood anyway. It's not exactly an inspiring message for a politician to deliver.
De Blasio is mayor because many voters believed in his progressive message. It remains to be seen if he can use that goodwill to his advantage once he's in office. New York needs to move on from the Bloomberg era and begin adapting to the rising demand for urban housing that will only continue to swell through the 21st century. De Blasio has so far shown a talent for connecting with people from all over the city. Hopefully, he can maintain support for his agenda even when the change it brings starts to disrupt people's lives.