This post is part of an ongoing series describing the MORE NYC plan to use the massive expansion of housing in NYC to address economic, social and environmental challenges.
A massive expansion of housing in New York City as envisoned by MORE NYC, funded by assessing inclusionary zoning fees on market rate housing in lower Manhattan to fund affordable housing and infrastructure upgrades in the rest of the city, will not only create jobs and addressing glaring economic inequality; it will also make New York City a better place to live.
While many financial interests will oppose the economic gains from upzoning going to affordable housing and other infrastructure rather than speculative profits, the main opposition to a large-scale expansion of housing in New York will be those who fear it will endanger what they love about the city. However, the New York City of working-class neighborhoods, business startups, artist colonies, and good jobs is being killed every day by soaring rents and economic displacement.
Restoring a Dynamic City: A frozen city focused on preserving existing lower density buildings in the heart of Manhattan is a recipe for a very expensive museum of older buildings, where long-standing stores and diners give ways to bank branches and other standardized national chains that can afford the rent and where only the wealthy can afford to live. New construction, more affordable housing and the jobs that go with it would trade that increasingly expensive museum for the dynamic city that can welcome the new people, businesses and communities that represent the dynamic history of New York City far more than any particular buildings. Not that truly historic buildings can't be preserved -- allowing taller residential buildings in some areas of lower Manhattan will reduce the economic pressure to replace many other historic buildings worth preserving. The new and the old jostling nearby is the heart of the dynamism that is the city's history.
Stopping Gentrification and Displacement: Many communities resist development because the limited amount of new housing built in those lower- and middle-income neighborhoods is overwhelmingly luxury units. Partly because so many wealthy lower Manhattan neighborhoods have been either downzoned or are under historic preservation rules, advocates have noted that most residential upzoning for new development has been diverted into communities already losing affordable units.
The limited units built in those neighborhoods don't end up relieving housing shortages, so prices continue to mount -- and the new luxury units just act as signals to attract other professionals who often buy existing affordable units to renovate, further cutting the supply of affordable units. MORE NYC would address the gentrification problems in neighborhoods in multiple ways. First, by making more market rate units available in lower Manhattan, it would reduce the number of professionals moving into those lower- and middle-income neighborhoods and renovating previously affordable units into more luxury apartments. Second, the funds to build new affordable units in such neighborhoods will provide additional units that are affordable not just to current residents, but available to their children and family members interested in moving to the city, further strengthening the ties that make strong neighborhoods. Finally, more overall units available will mean fewer housing shortages overall and lower speculative demand driving up prices. The result will be that even market rate units in those neighborhoods will be more affordable to many people already living in those communities.
Revitalizing Education and Health Care in the City: Through both the initial IZ fees and long-term additions to the revenue base of the city, MORE NYC will help fund new schools and hospitals, while supporting better programs at existing facilities. Making New York an attractive place to live is critical to sustaining its long-term population expansion. Kaid Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council has eloquently argued that the environmental benefits of expanding urban living are dependent on its livability and attractiveness to families. As he argues, " urban public schools are an environmental issue. Affordability, too: cities need schoolteachers, public safety officers and mechanics every bit as much as lawyers and doctors."
Improving Transit for All Residents: It's counter-intuitive, but expanding New York City's population could ease the burden on its existing transit infrastructure. While only 1.6 million people live in Manhattan, its daytime population is almost four million people. Creating the opportunity for a portion of out-of-town commuters to live near their jobs would mean commutes by foot, bike or a few short stops on the subway would replace them taking up space in long train and subway commutes. "New compact high-rise development," argues economist Edward Glaeser, "can provide the one commute that is even faster than a twenty-four-minute drive: a fifteen-minute walk."
While those in new affordable units at transit-accessible stops around the city core might need a few more subway stops to reach their workplace, this will still reduce the burden on the transit system compared to the extraordinary long commutes on multiple train, bus and subway lines currently faced by low-income residents. And the new jobs driven by construction and the spending by workers and new residents in those neighborhoods means that more of those local residents will have jobs they can commute to closer to home.
This will actually reinforce a trend where residents of the outer boroughs increasingly commute within their own borough -- and sometimes to other boroughs -- rather than to Manhattan. During the last decade, Manhattan lost jobs while every other borough gained them, so increasing affordable housing in those areas will put more people close to where job growth is happening.
However, New York City's transit system wasn't well designed for commuter trips within and between boroughs. Part of the loss of dynamism in New York City has been its failure to invest in new infrastructure to serve this new commuting reality. There have been no significant new tunnels or bridges built in the city in the last 50 years and, while the subway is gaining small additions serving Manhattan (largely delayed plans from decades ago), there have been essentially no significant additions to the mass transit system in the rest of the city for many decades.
This is where new funds for transit infrastructure from inclusionary zoning fees can make a difference, both bringing residents closer to transit accessible hubs near their jobs and deploying new transit infrastructure to connect those hubs to serve a more multi-polar city. And as new infrastructure increased the value of new and existing market-rate housing in those areas, tax improvement districts and other tools could capture that value increase to add further funding for transit expansions benefitting all residents.
One other focus of transit investments should be making transit more accessible to parents pushing strollers, the disabled, and the elderly. Affordable housing is needed by all those groups, but it will be far more useful if there are elevators and ramps to enter and exit subway stops. Especially for the elderly giving up drivers licenses as they age, New York City should be a retirement haven for many of them, so greater transit accessibility will help attract those retirees and their retirement spending to fuel more jobs in the city.
Creating New Open Space: As noted, higher density in New York City will help preserve open space in the rest of the country by preventing its loss to more urban sprawl. But properly planned, new construction can create more accessible green space for existing and new residents as well. Taller buildings can open up opportunities for green space on the ground, but an even larger opportunity are new rooftops. New York landscape architect Thomas Balsley calls rooftops "the greatest untapped open space opportunity in America."
Cities like Singapore have increasingly integrated greenery into urban design; along with gardens throughout that city, the Marina Bay Sands In fact, New York City currently has the largest rooftop park in the nation in the form of Riverbank State Park in upper Manhattan, where 28 acres of playing fields, a swimming pool and playgrounds rest on top of a hidden waste treatment plant. Many parks and gardens exist on the roofs of privately owned buildings around the city, so as new affordable units are built, they could be required to provide public access to roofs designed as local playgrounds and parks (with appropriate security measures to separate such access from resident units).
A larger project, but one with great possible social returns, would be to encourage the placement of urban farms on the roofs of new units as well. Such farms could provide a significant source of produce for city dwellers without the environmental costs of transit into the city. They also would provide additional rooftop insulation and absorb stormwater, a significant benefit for building residents. The result would be a denser but also greener city for everyone.
The bottom line is that a dynamic, growing city can actually deliver more benefits to more people than the current focus on trying to freeze in the current "look" of the city, even as its heart and soul disappears as most people are priced out.
Read the whole MORE NYC plan here
Sign the petition to Mayor De Blasio in support of the plan
Past MORE NYC posts: