By Vicki Been (Click here to view the entire P&R issue)
There is no doubt that public policy needs to grapple with the challenges that our low-income households face in gentrifying neighborhoods, and the ways in which racial discrimination and inequality affect the causes and consequences of those challenges. Unfortunately, Angotti’s analysis of the problems gets many facts wrong, and his prescription for solving the problems is seriously misguided. I’ll focus specifically here on perhaps the most dangerous claims of his polemic, the housing world’s equivalent of climate change denial: the assertion that building more housing is not necessary to ensure the affordability of housing. He argues that land development is not subject to the standard laws of supply and demand, and that zoning change to allow more housing increases the value of land and “produces gentrification and displacement.”
Land use regulation likely limits property values below what an unregulated market would produce, especially when—as is the case in some parts of New York City—that zoning has gone largely unchanged for half a century. Changing those regulations can therefore increase the value of a plot of land, but lower the cost per unit of the housing built on that land. But the point of changing the regulations, at least in New York in recent years, is not to increase the value of the land—it is to allow more housing to be built to meet the demands of a population that is growing faster than it has in decades, and to assure that a significant portion of that new housing will be permanently affordable. If the supply of housing is not increased to accommodate growth, rents will go up. There are no other plausible outcomes (at best, increased rent burden could be delayed somewhat, perhaps, if families crowd together, don’t form new households, or otherwise spread the cost over more people.) Unless we build new housing, people who can afford higher rents will outbid poorer current residents for existing housing. Stopping that result would require explicit (and probably unconstitutional) growth controls, strict and strictly enforced rent-regulation, and a bevy of other tactics to make the City so unattractive to those who might otherwise have wanted to move here, or grow their families here, that the City stops growing. So, at bottom, Professor Angotti is advocating a no-growth policy.
That is in line with the mood of some parts of the country, but has never been consistent with New York City’s values. We have always been a gateway city, with bolder plans than our counterparts to provide quality housing and economic opportunity for current residents and newcomers. Indeed, many of the programs to accommodate growth spurts in the past, such as the Mitchell-Lama housing built to provide middle-income housing to accommodate a growing population after the war, are now both a cherished part of the City’s low- and moderateincome housing and a proud part of our history of openness. Most New Yorkers treasure, and champion, the diversity that makes the City unique; we believe that the essence of the City is the magic that results from the fusion of so many different races, ethnicities, religions, cultures, generations, backgrounds, and talents. So a no-growth “solution” to our affordability crisis is startling, even in the upside-down world the country is currently in.
But that’s what would follow from Professor Angotti’s logic. Even building only affordable housing wouldn’t solve the problem—unless we keep others out, building more affordable housing will not address the demand for housing by those who want to move to New York. And of course, there’s the matter of who will pay for that affordable housing (and the social services, good schools, open space and public realm and infrastructure improvements required to support that housing). New York City has committed 10 percent of its entire ten-year capital budget for subsidized affordable housing, and that doesn’t include the schools, parks, and infrastructure improvements necessary to support that housing. In the absence of a mechanism (like the mandatory inclusionary zoning Angotti decries) to have market rate housing help to create affordable housing, how will the City support the ”right” to “housing in the public domain” he demands— by raising taxes on current residents? Then there’s the question of how the City could allow only affordable housing while still achieving the mixed-income neighborhoods that research consistently shows help to deconcentrate poverty, reduce segregation, and provide better opportunities, especially for children. That problem is especially acute given that Angotti describes the City’s affordable housing as “usually middle-income housing,” even though almost 80% of the subsidized housing the City has financed over the past three years is targeted to households who qualify as extremely-low, verylow and low-income. Which of those families is he saying shouldn’t be the beneficiary of the City’s affordable housing programs?
Angotti seems to suggest that we hold off on development until the City goes through the kind of communitybased planning process that he has advocated for many years, along with structural change to the City’s land use process to give the 59 community boards more power. At the outset, he is just wrong in his description of the City’s planning process, as shown by the community-based planning measures underway in neighborhoods across the City.Worse yet, his vision of the perfect process would take many, many years or decades—the Chinatown community planning process took seven years by his account. Even if the City could reach agreement on what Angotti would consider a comprehensive plan, and on a new land use system, implementing those “reforms” would take many more years, and only then would actual building begin. But as so much research shows, every year a child lives in unstable housing, or in neighborhoods that don’t offer good environments for education, employment, health or safety, is a year in which we’ve lost a significant opportunity to improve the rest of that child’s life. So, imperfect as it is, rezoning now to build more market rate housing, with the requirement that it include between 20 to 30 percent of the apartments as permanently affordable housing, is preferable to losing another generation to the no-growth, wall-the-city policies that follow from supply skepticism.
Vicki Been (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Boxer Family Professor of Law New York University School of Law. Professor Been served as Commissioner of New York City’s Housing Preservation and Development from 2014 through January, 2017.