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October 11, 2005

The Quiet Suicide of Urban Liberalism

This NY Times article describes the "quiet revolution" in New York City over the last few years as 3,600 blocks have been rezoned to prevent or limit new housing.

Enacted in the name of preserving "the character" of local communities, this is more in nature of a neutron bomb, keeping the buildings while driving out the working class famillies who once could afford to live in the city. With a projected demand of 300,000 new people looking for housing in the City in coming years, the inevitable result of limiting the housing supply is soaring home prices.

The Gutting of Affordable Housing: For the poor of the City, this means longer and longer commutes and even homelessness. For the middle class, it means many fleeing the city for suburbs where they will destroy the environment driving SUVs and become Republicans.

"Gut renovation" is the process by which a building maintains its facade while it's inner parts are destroyed and replaced with shiny new parts. That's New York City, as the facade is maintained but the inner soul of working class families are replaced by the wealthy able to afford the housing prices.

This Harvard study last year estimated that as much as half the costs of housing in New York City is due to zoning and other regulations that restrict the housing supply. So working families could potentially be paying half as much for housing costs, but instead the trend in the City is in the opposite direction as the supply of new housing is even further choked off.

New York City was not always so unaffordable, because it used to build new housing to accomodate that growth. As the Harvard study notes, "there were 13,000 new units permitted in Manhattan in 1960 alone, only 21,000 new units were permitted throughout the entire decade of the 1990s. In spite of skyrocketing prices, the housing stock has grown by less than 10 percent since 1980." And the relation between decreasing housing permits and soaring prices is clear in this graph:

The Suburbanization of the City: One of the biggest problems is that zoning increasingly blocks taller residential buildings, the key to affordable housing in a city where land prices are so high. Since an extra floor costs no additional land, the marginal cost of adding floors to a building are inevitably lower and more affordable than less dense housing.

But again, the last decade has seen a range of height restrictions that have discouraged taller, more affordable housing:
Urban Liberal Hypocrisy on Equity and the Environment: This attack on density not only undermines affordable housing, it undermines mass transit, since fewer people means fewer riders, so train stops have to be further apart or trains run less often to be economical. As areas like Staten Island and other low density parts of the City are zoned to prevent taller buildings, this inevitably encourages more driving and makes new public transit nearly unaffordable to build.

What's shocking is that many New York liberals -- like most liberals in urban areas- talk a great game on poverty and the environment at the national level, but in the biggest area where they fully control economic policy-- urban planning -- they have made "lifestyle" choices through their elected representatives as destructive to equity and the environment as the suburban SUV drivers they usually disdain.

Housing is the largest expense for most families, yet the main housing policy of urban liberalism is to block new housing and drive up the costs. This is the quiet suicide of urban liberalism, as working class voters are driven into the welcoming embrace of "red state" suburban sprawl.

None of this argues that existing historic neighborhoods should be bulldozed, but it does mean that traditional neighborhoods have to welcome higher-density affordable housing in their local areas. Otherwise, urban liberals have zero excuse for lecturing anyone else on poverty or the environment.

Posted by Nathan at October 11, 2005 07:50 AM