The Agenda

The Satmar Strategy for Urban Renewal

One of the enduring mysteries of life in New York city is how the Satmar Hasidim manage to support large families in one of the country’s most expensive housing markets. Stephen Smith of the New York Observer reports that the Satmar have used their considerable political influence, which flows in part from a bloc voting strategy, to press for the relaxation of building restrictions in the South Williamsburg neighborhood that lies at the heart of their community, as well as in a handful of neighboring districts. These efforts have yielded a great deal of new affordable housing. The clear implication of Smith’s reporting is that all New Yorkers can learn from the wisdom of the Satmar:

But political considerations aside, there are also reasons to believe that growth is, as the Hasidim claim, necessary to keep prices in check. In spite of the popular impression of New York as a builder-friendly city that’s constantly exceeding the bounds of rational development, the city’s growth over the past half-century has been anemic, and has not kept pace with the natural growth in population.

The number of housing units in New York City, for example, grew by only 170,000 from 2000 to 2010, or around 5.3 percent—nowhere near enough to keep pace with America’s population growth of 9.7 percent over the same period. Never mind New York City’s rising profile, which would lure a lot more people—if only they could afford it.

Mr. Levin said the Hasidic community’s large families mean “they have a greater housing need than the hipster community,” but tell that to buyers of newly built condos in goyish Williamsburg, where the median price per square foot is almost double the $400 upper limit of new Hasidic developments.

If New York city embraced what we might call the Satmar strategy, the city would become much friendlier to middle-income families with children. New York city is a high-productivity, high-wage region, yet the high cost of housing means that landowners capture a disproportionately large share of the benefit, which is one reason why many less-skilled and mid-skilled New Yorkers have migrated to lower-cost regions. Increasing development would help restrain housing costs, which would tend to lead to higher disposable incomes. The Satmar strategy offers an alternative to what Ryan Avent has called the “moving toward stagnation” dynamic. And if you believe that cities like New York have lots of attractive amenities (e.g., cultural and educational opportunities) that are hard to replicate elsewhere, as they reflect built-in advantages associated with size and sticky talent agglomerations, the Satmar strategy will ensure that more people have access to them.


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