Climate change is an existential threat. To fight it, one of our most crucial weapons is denser land use, which allows for car-free living and reduced building energy use. New Yorkers’ energy use is about a third the national average because of our density. We need more of this. Opposing density is climate denialism.
And climate change is history’s greatest crime of environmental racism, given that most of the harm falls on the global South, while most accumulated emissions came from the developed economies of the West. It is morally urgent to accept and accommodate increased density in our own communities.
Where should we add density? The greatest environmental benefit comes from adding housing near transit, as this makes car-free living practical and attractive. New York’s subway system could run many more trains per hour than it does now, so we could easily accommodate more passengers. To be sure, suburbs and affluent neighborhoods must also add housing and transit. New York’s real problem is that we don’t have more places like it. But densification cannot become a game of “you first”. The climate doesn’t care.
A crucial question is if adding market-rate housing increases the prices of existing apartments. The available data does not support this claim. We need more studies, but the great majority of those done so far have found that adding housing does not increase prices.
Could it in theory? There is one plausible mechanism. A large new luxury building brings in higher income residents. They support new types of businesses, which in turn make the neighborhood more attractive, driving up prices.
This scenario is credible, but not supported by data. A recent study by the Philadelphia Fed tested this exact hypothesis, and found no such effect on prices.
A second problem is that this scenario takes time. The claim is that a new building creates demand simply by being built. But no one is willing to pay above market for an apartment only if there’s a big new building nearby. What about an apartment gut-renovated into a luxury unit? Again: who pays for a luxury unit only if there’s a big new building nearby? No one. A new building can’t instantly drive up prices around it.
A new luxury unit is functionally identical to a gut-renovated unit in a nearby older building. If a new building can’t instantly induce demand for those nearby apartments, it can’t do so for itself, either. If developers could create demand just by building, they would have done so ages ago.
There’s no mystery where demand is coming from: New York City adds more jobs than housing. The extreme of this dynamic is playing out in the Bay Area. Since 2010, San Francisco has added eight times as many jobs as apartments. When a city adds more jobs than apartments, housing gets put in a vice, because affluent newcomers outbid existing residents for their own homes.
Rent control slows this process but cannot stop it. And it does nothing to address the jobs/housing imbalance that’s the fundamental driver. Tenant protections are essential but not sufficient.
Adding market-rate housing doesn’t add affordable housing units. But not adding housing reduces the supply of existing affordable units. Newcomers don’t go away, they outbid existing residents for their own homes. Adding some market-rate housing doesn’t lower prices much, but not doing so drives up the price of existing housing, while increasing carbon emissions. This shouldn’t be a hard choice.
We desperately need more social housing, but we don’t get it by blocking new buildings. Even Vienna relies on the market for two thirds of its new housing.
San Francisco’s refusal to add housing drives up prices while forcing workers into miserable, carbon-spewing commutes. This is not the model to emulate, yet that’s where we’re headed, because New York’s 1961 zoning resolution severely restricts our ability to add housing. You can’t talk about artificial shortages without facing the reality of exclusionary zoning. We have cartelized buildable land. This dwarfs the effect of the 2 percent of New York apartments tied up in AirBnB and pied-à-terre’s.
In addition to using less fuel, residents of dense urban areas are more socially tolerant and easier to unionize. Density is not a problem, it’s the goal. It’s environmental lunacy to be adding short buildings adjacent to transit, as at the Dekalb stop.
Do you have to look at a bunch of ugly new buildings? Yep. It’s your eyeballs or the planet, bub. Not that new buildings have to be ugly. 803 Knickerbocker is an attractive project built for ultra-high energy efficiency and indoor air quality. And it cost no more than a conventional building, so it’s a viable model for sustainable, affordable construction.
Ironically, our housing shortage lends spurious credibility to induced demand theory, as rents increase even as new buildings go up. But the reality is that New York adds very little new housing relative to its population. Cities like Sydney add proportionally more housing and so have seen rents ease.
The induced demand theory cannot be supported with available data. It requires believing that affluent renters prefer living next to big new buildings, or that they wouldn’t move into New York at all if not for cafes opening in low-income neighborhoods. It requires ignoring the artificial shortage created by zoning, and ignoring too the demand created by job growth. It requires believing that developers can create demand out of thin air, by processes undescribed, yet didn’t do so when land was cheaper and development would have been more profitable.
Induced demand theory is nefarious because it motivates people to oppose densification even though it would reduce carbon emissions.
The ugly truth is that everyone hates having density added near them, carbon footprint be damned. We live in New York because of the benefits of density, but never want density increased nearby. We all have mixed motives. Supporting social housing in theory while opposing all densification in practice is morally indefensible.
The climate emergency demands densification. The Left must put forward a vision for maximizing density as part of its commitment to social justice.
Jonathan Flothow does energy conservation work and lives in Ridgewood, Queens.