Some scholars, such as Joe Cortright of City Observatory, have suggested that the threat of displacement has been overblown, and it is certainly possible to overstate it. What is also true, however, is that an alarmingly high share of New York renter households—more than half, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies—are “cost-burdened,” i.e., they spend more than 30 percent of their gross monthly incomes on rent. In other words, many families that have yet to be displaced are very vulnerable to displacement, and anxious about the prospect. No one, least of all Cortright, would deny that this is a real obstacle to upward mobility.
It is imperative that policymakers find some way to boost housing development without triggering the natural defensive reaction of local residents who are confident that its benefits will elude them. Somehow, these benefits have to be made concrete. Over the years, a number of scholars, most notably David Schleicher of Yale Law School, have devised various schemes to do just that, with only modest success. But one wonders if the urgency of New York’s transit crisis can create an opening.
Which leads me to Armlovich’s ingenious proposal. In a new report for the Manhattan Institute, he sketches out a plan for boosting housing supply while upgrading public transportation. Specifically, he proposes the creation of “transit growth zones,” areas around transportation hubs, in which regulations would be eased so that higher-density housing could more easily be built. In these zones, builders would pay fees per square foot to build up to the maximum allowed in New York state, or else fees to build beyond the limit set by current regulations. Such fees and taxes could be channeled to the MTA, provided the agency is willing to lower its obscenely high procurement costs.
Ultimately, the new zones could be a win for everyone. “I estimate that property taxes and one-time development fees from the creation of roughly 411,000 new private housing units over 10 years would generate about $54 billion for the MTA during the same period,” he writes. Meanwhile, housing supply would start catching up to unmet demand, easing prices across the city, even as the city’s subways are restored to health. Instead of adding to the congestion problem, revenue from new housing development would be leveraged to help.
If Armlovich’s vision sounds too good to be true, well, it could be. As the urbanist Stephen Smith has observed, increases in supply are never perfectly keyed to increases in demand. Historically, New York’s developers have oscillated between irrational exuberance, leading to an oversupply of new housing, at least for a time, and its morose opposite, in which chastened developers overlearn the lessons of the last cycle of boom and bust. Brooklyn’s high-end rental market, for example, has cooled in response to the construction of large numbers of luxury properties. Perhaps developers won’t leap at the opportunity afforded by Armlovich’s grand bargain, as they are still licking their wounds over the lackluster response to their latest frenzy of building. But I suspect his proposal would indeed stimulate the animal spirits of would-be real estate tycoons, which in turn will help replenish the depleted offers of the MTA.