or YIMBY Movement: A Flat Earth Society for the 21st Century
Earlier this month, I wrote an op-ed citing two recent analyses — one about new housing construction by neighborhood in New York City, the other about affordable housing prices by neighborhood — which showed that the YIMBY (‘Yes In My Backyard’) theory that simply upzoning to build more housing brings down prices quite simply belied the facts. Who knew that a new, even more detailed analysis would come out just a few days later, even more emphatically showing the same.
Property Shark just released a comprehensive survey of 3rd quarter 2021 housing sales prices across New York City, by neighborhood. The big takeaways: the city’s most expensive neighborhood is the one with the most new housing construction, and every NYC neighborhood with high housing construction (mostly due to upzonings allowing huge amounts of new construction, largely inspired by this theory that more market-rate housing means lower prices for everyone) had extremely high prices as well.
These YIMBYs have long argued that landmarking or contextual zoning rules — simplistically, the opposite of upzoning, though they allow new development while keeping it in context with its surroundings — forces prices up by not allowing demand to be met. And yet this recent survey shows no such correlation, with prices as high or higher in neighborhoods without such restrictions that are adjacent to those with.
The analysis also found that in the city’s most expensive borough, Manhattan, the least expensive neighborhood was its most landmarked, Tudor City, where there has been no new housing construction. Similarly, in rapidly gentrifying Queens, which had the sharpest rise in housing prices, two of the most affordable neighborhoods were also the borough’s most extensively landmarked, with little new construction — Jackson Heights and Sunnyside. By contrast, the borough’s highest prices could be found in Hunter’s Point, the section of Long Island City which has among the city’s highest concentration of new housing construction (the borough’s other highest priced neighborhood is suburban Belle Harbor, where unlike the neighborhoods which YIMBYs and city officials typically call for upzoning, the rules actually only allow 1 and 2 family homes; yet somehow you never hear the YIMBYs railing against this).
According to the Property Shark analysis, Hudson Yards, the largest real estate development in the world right now with seemingly endless new buildings going up, is the city’s most expensive neighborhood. High on the list as well: Hudson Square, rezoned eight years ago to allow huge new residential construction; Battery Park City, which is all new construction; Brooklyn’s DUMBO, which has a landmarked core of densely built up century-old warehouses (many converted to housing) but also tons of new residential construction; and what they call Times Square/Theater District, but actually includes most of West Midtown, extending up to the ever-higher supertalls of Billionaire’s Row. Also near the top of the list were Williamsburg and Greenpoint, the Financial District, Downtown Brooklyn, and Chelsea — each of which have been rezoned in recent years to allow vastly increased residential development. If allowing unfettered construction brings prices down, how can these be the most expensive neighborhoods in New York?
YIMBYs love to point to neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and SoHo and their high housing prices and say that extensive landmarking or restrictive zoning are to blame (which they then use to justify proposals like the current SoHo/NoHo/Chinatown upzoning plan). But Hudson Square, which borders both neighborhoods and has little landmarking, very generous zoning, and prolific housing construction, has prices comparable to SoHo and higher than Greenwich Village. So does nearby Little Italy, which has seen a ton of new housing construction. Also telling are the higher prices in Downtown Brooklyn, home to seemingly endless new housing construction, than in adjacent Brooklyn Heights, which is nearly entirely landmarked and has seen little new construction. In fact, if one looks at Brooklyn’s northwest corner, you find a dozen neighborhoods from Vinegar Hill to Greenwood Heights with some of the highest housing prices in the borough. However there’s clearly no correlation between high prices and landmarking or a lack of new housing construction, as prices are just as high in the landmarked areas such as Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope as they are in the adjacent non-landmarked ones like Gowanus and Downtown Brooklyn. The borough’s other standouts for high housing prices? Williamsburg and Greenpoint, one of the areas of the city with the highest concentration of new housing construction, and suburban Manhattan Beach, which has even more restrictive zoning than Belle Harbor, and yet YIMBYs and upzoning advocates never mention it.
Even the distinction between Tribeca (the city’s second most expensive neighborhood, with Q3 2021 prices averaging $3.35 mil.) and SoHo (the city’s third most expensive neighborhood, with prices averaging $2.85 mil., or almost 20% less) is telling. One could make the argument this is a real apples to apples comparison, as both consist largely of 19th century loft buildings converted to housing in a central, transit-rich location on either side of Canal Street. Both contain an impressive assortment of historic buildings landmarked for their significance at the city, state, and federal level.
The main difference? Less of Tribeca is landmarked, and the parts which aren’t allow much larger development than those in SoHo. This has resulted in a considerable amount of high-rise luxury housing construction, including supertall (and super expensive) 56 Leonard, 111 Murray Street, and 30 Park Place. Unsurprisingly, TriBeCa’s housing prices consistently surpass SoHo’s.
But much as we (hopefully) learned that simply allowing the market to do what it wants will likely only bring prosperity to the 1%, we have to recognize that opening the floodgates to vastly increased market rate housing development in our city may benefit developers and the very wealthy, but will help few others. And this can be true even when there are affordable housing set-asides in these mammoth new developments, as there are in many in Hudson Yards, Downtown Brooklyn, and Williamsburg/Greenpoint, as the flood of new upscale housing and the increase in housing prices more than offsets the benefit of the modest number of “affordable” units (which actually often require incomes higher than the average in New York City, and therefore aren’t that “affordable”).
So what does this all mean? I’ll state again here that I don’t contend that there’s no relationship between supply and demand (there is), nor would I argue against allowing new market rate housing development. But the evidence could not be more clear that simply doing so is not going to bring prices down for everyone, and may well have the opposite effect. Nor will it address the lack of affordable housing for too many New Yorkers, from the least well off to the middle class.
Much as with COVID vaccines and climate change, we need to be guided by empirical data, and the facts. These show allowing large scale new market rate housing development doesn’t help the cause of affordability, and landmark and zoning restrictions that reinforce neighborhood character and keep new development in scale don’t hurt it. Instead, promoting policies as I’ve previously suggested which hold on to as much of our existing affordable housing as possible, connecting it to those who most need it, and creating new affordable housing without it being dependent upon vastly increased amounts of new market rate housing, are what’s needed to truly address our city’s housing affordability needs.
To urge city officials not to buy the upzoning=affordability canard and to reject its latest incarnation, the SoHo/NoHo/Chinatown rezoning plan, CLICK HERE.
To learn more about the relationship between preservation and affordability, click here.