Cram More People into New York City

(Lucas Jackson / Reuters)
It and other 'superstar' cities should be denser.

I  lived in New York City for about five years and hated every second of it. My first complaint was that it was too dense. My second, paradoxically, was that it was not dense enough.

The former gripe is just a matter of personal preference. I’m not an urban type of dude. I’d like to learn my neighbors’ names but not be able to hear them have sex, rather than the opposite. Not much anyone can do about that.

But the latter taps into a much deeper problem with the city, and with modern American big cities in general. I paid outrageous sums to live in tiny apartments in ancient buildings that were only about five stories tall. The heat came through rusty radiators, and air conditioning had to be supplied by window units. There’s obviously a huge demand to live in New York, so why hadn’t these buildings been razed decades ago and replaced with something two, three, ten times as tall? Is someone trying to preserve New York’s quaint rustic charm, or what?

The answer, of course, is that numerous government policies have stopped property owners from building New York bigger, meaning that the supply of housing cannot keep up with the demand for it. The nation’s other “superstar” cities — the ones with huge amounts of economic activity and enormous populations, such as Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and D.C. — have all seen much the same thing. And prohibitively high housing costs in the nation’s most productive areas can have destructive consequences. One study blames housing regulations for a 36 percent reduction to GDP growth over the 1964–2009 period. Another points out that folks who never went to college are actually financially worse off in the densest cities than elsewhere these days; wages are higher, yes, but this advantage is more than eaten up by housing costs.

In a new report for the Manhattan Institute, Aaron Renn sums up the history of these developments and offers some suggestions for improvement. Policymakers at all levels of government should pay attention.

New York’s population more than doubled between 1900 and 1960 — at which point a new zoning code effectively capped the population of the city. It’s grown only 8 percent since then. A series of major infrastructure projects meant to facilitate growth also ended at about that time; now the Big Apple makes only marginal improvements, such as the Second Avenue subway . . . which was first proposed in 1920, first began construction in 1972, and actually opened in 2017.

Across the country it’s basically the same story. Infrastructure projects in general became tougher in 1970, thanks to the National Environmental Policy Act and the “environmental impact statements” it required. “Historic preservation” rules took hold, protecting old buildings in cities’ downtowns. And big cities actually lost population for a period, thanks to high crime and suburbanization; this got them out of the habit of growing, and when they did start to grow again, they had some capacity to spare thanks to their years of decline.

Meanwhile, practices known as “urban containment” stop cities such as Seattle and San Francisco from spreading, by limiting the density of nearby areas that aren’t already heavily urbanized. In other words, cities aren’t building up, and they’re not expanding outward, either.

When it comes to addressing these issues, there are two big questions: What should be done? And what level of government should have the final say as to whether it gets done?

Renn’s policy proposals are not too surprising, because the solutions to the problem, or at least the broad strokes of them, are not that difficult. The building restrictions need to be relaxed. Cities need to start thinking about growth-oriented infrastructure projects again — airports, rail, street improvements to give more space to pedestrians and buses.

The question of who decides is a lot harder. These matters are traditionally handled by local governments, and local governments are precisely the bodies that have messed all this up. Local governments serve the interests of current residents, not potential ones, and current residents often don’t want their cities to get even more crowded. Those who own property don’t mind if it gets more valuable, and while some renters would happily support these reforms to bring their costs down — I sure as hell would have, in my miserable New York days — a lot of them are on the other side of the issue, too.

Renn suggests that, in a targeted and careful way, states should step in and override the very worst policies. As a constitutional matter this poses no issues, because local governments are fully subordinate to state ones. (This is different from the relationship between the federal government and the sovereign states.) But of course there is always at least something to be said for local control. And while Renn doesn’t discuss a federal role, it should be noted that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has been working to discourage bad zoning policy as a replacement for Obama-era rules that tried to force localities to engineer the socioeconomic characteristics of their neighborhoods.

It’s obvious enough what needs to be done. But the people in charge of doing it aren’t doing it, tempting others to seize the reins. Perhaps that’s the only way forward. But it would be better for everyone if cities would realize the benefits of growth — from greater tax contributions to lower rents to bragging rights.

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