For this year’s developer’s feature, we selected a topic that is very close to the hearts of AN’s editors: affordability. The price of housing—the focus of our inquiry—has become so ridiculously high in New York City where we live that many of us are wondering how much longer we’ll be able to make ends meet, and some of us (this editor specifically) have decided to pick up and leave for more comfortably arranged and financially feasible pastures (a.k.a. Texas).
As an illustration, here’s a nutshell history of the rent I’ve paid during my time in The Big Apple: In 1998, when I first moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, my rent was $300 per month. I continue to live in that neighborhood, and while I now am able to enjoy good restaurants and not fear racially motivated violence, I pay $1,700 per month for a 400-square-foot apartment with sagging floors and ceilings, leaky plumbing, mold, limited closet space, periodic roach and rat infestations, and loud/nosy neighbors—and I consider myself lucky. When I departed in August, my landlord, after gussying the place up with a coat of paint, will raise the rent to $2,500 per month, which, believe it or not, is still below market for the area.
Meanwhile, the development of so-called “luxury” housing in Williamsburg continues with gleeful abandon. It’s hard to find a street in the vicinity without a construction site. And unlike the super luxury housing going up all over Manhattan—which is reportedly being bought up as investment property by billionaires who won’t be living there—folks are actually moving in: startup entrepreneurs, financial advisors, sales reps, advertising “creatives,” the children of the rich; in short, people who make or have more money than architectural editors.
It’s getting more and more crowded and the already overburdened subway lines are becoming more and more sardine-esque. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision to allow Two Trees to build even higher towers on its Domino Sugar Factory mega-development in exchange for more affordable units isn’t going to help the transit situation (neither will the mayor’s plan to subsidize increased ferry service, except perhaps for those who live and work by the water). Nor is it going to make an appreciable difference in the lack of reasonably priced apartments. As Alex Ulam reported in his article for this issue on the South Bronx, a 2014 tenant lottery for 2,500 subsidized apartments in New York City drew 1.5 million applications. This disparity between supply and demand is providing the bottom pressure to keep rents climbing, and the government’s subsidization of housing and incentivizing to encourage private developers to build below-market units isn’t closing the gap.
So what’s the solution? Well, my answer is leave, or don’t move here. But that’s hardly constructive. And, in any case, the market is teaching us all right now that there’s seemingly no end to the amount of people who want to live in the city and can afford to do so at the going rate. Consequently, there appears to be no limit to the quantity of new housing that the market will support, meaning that building more, even with a quotient of subsidized affordable units, won’t necessarily bring prices down. What it will do is increase density, overwhelm existing transportation options, crowd-out precious public amenity space, and ensure that each and every person who pays more gets less.
As Michael Sorkin said in our “Voices of Architecture” feature, “We must also question the idea of density as unmitigated good.” I’m inclined to agree with him. In this instance, while density does not necessarily result in unaffordability—Pruitt-Igoe, whose demolition pictures open our feature on affordable housing, illustrates another kind of problematic density—in the current mode of urbanization they tend to go hand-in-hand. At Pruitt-Igoe the highly concentrated poverty of HUD’s scheme created unbearable living conditions. We are now creating ever more densely packed concentrations of wealth, a trend that could turn out to be no less enervating to the vitality of our cities.