Friday, September 12, 2014

Did you bring enough housing for everybody?

When I was a kid, one of the things the teachers told us was that if you bring snacks or candy, you have to bring enough for everyone. If you don't, it winds up going mostly to your friends and excluding a lot of kids, which isn't fair.

I realized recently that this also applies to people who want to keep rents down through rent controls, not increasing the supply, like Tom Angotti:

At bottom, developers typically argue, the housing problem is all about supply and demand. Let us increase the supply, they say, and there will be more housing to go around for all. This, not rent regulation, will keep rents from rising. That’s good old trickle-down economics, which never works. Indeed, we’ve just come through a couple of decades in which the total housing supply has grown dramatically, and so have rents, but there was also a huge loss of low-rent housing. Over the last 20 years almost 250,000 units of rental housing were deregulated.

I want to give Angotti props for two things: unlike many rent control advocates, Angotti actually listens to people who advocate increasing the supply, and he takes the time to write an articulate response. So even though I'm criticizing his arguments, the same criticism is even more true of other people's arguments.

First of all, one sorta-valid question that Angotti raises: if total housing supply has increased (I don’t have the figures, but I’ll assume that it’s true), and rents have also increased, doesn’t that falsify the supply-side argument?

Well, no, because Angotti’s representation of "what developers typically argue" is inaccurate. I honestly don’t know what developers typically argue, because I’m not one and I don’t spend much time listening to them. But if the problem is all about supply and demand, then Angotti left out the demand side. A fairer statement of the argument would be "Let us increase the supply to match the demand, and there will be enough housing to go around for all."

If we phrase the proposal this way, we have to look at demand, and all signs point to a huge increase in the demand for New York’s walkable urban spaces and its well-paying jobs. But Angotti does not want to look at demand. Instead, he shrugs it off as a “speculative real estate fever.” He acknowledges that “the plan claims the city’s population is bound to increase in the next decade,” but argues, bizarrely, that the projected increase is not based on evidence of real demand but of demand induced by “the development of smaller housing units.” That is all he says about the demand side.

To people who currently rent in the city, Angotti’s blustering about "gentrification" and displacement may be comforting, but for me it rings hollow. I’m a fourth-generation New Yorker, but after college (two decades ago, which is as far back as Angotti goes in his piece), I couldn’t afford to live in the neighborhood I knew best, the Upper West Side. Even now, with a solidly middle-class family income, four of the neighborhoods that my family has called home are now out of my range.

Things might have been different if my parents had not done the back-to-the-land thing in the seventies. They might have been different if, when I spent a few years to go to school in another state, I had played the illegal sublet game instead of giving up my rent-stabilized apartment. They might have been different if one of my family members had gotten a bigger apartment for me to illegally inherit when he died. But as it is, my family has given up several rent-regulated apartments, and I am displaced, one of the victims that Angotti and his fellow rent-regulation advocates cry for, and the Upper West Side community is poorer because the studio I inherited there was too small for my family.

Except that I’m not one of the victims that Angotti cries for. My family didn’t live in any of these places for "decades and generations," but instead migrated around the metropolitan area, chasing dreams of suburban comfort, rustic peace and creative success across the generations. Because we left our rent-regulated apartments semi-voluntarily, I don’t count as one of Angotti's displaced. I have no right of return.

You know who else doesn’t matter in the world of the rent-regulation advocates? Immigrants from other countries, looking for cheap places to settle in the U.S. The talented and ambitious from other parts of the country, looking to make it in New York. The queer and the weird and the non-conforming, chased out of their tight-knit communities in small towns and suburbs. Anyone who wants to live without a car and not be part of a small, oppressed minority.

There is no housing for us, because the rent-regulation advocates didn’t bring enough for everybody. They only brought enough for their friends, those fortunate enough to be currently benefiting from rent regulation and subsidized housing. If I were their kindergarten teacher I would have a quiet talk with their parents after school.

Honestly, I’m fine: I have a nice co-op in Queens. But it’s the thought that counts, and the thought that we don’t count is pretty damn offensive. It leaves this old lefty fuming at the cozy club mentality that Angotti tries to dress up as justice.


Alon said...

As per this and this, total housing unit growth from 1993 to 2011 was 0.64% a year. This is not totally comparable because the datasets are calibrated to different censuses, but it should give you some idea of what's going on.

Christopher said...

Some other factors that didn't get taken into account: it may be that the amount of housing stock has increased, along with rents, but what about increases in population? If the number of units increased by, say, 10%, and the city's population went up by 20%, supply and demand still work and rents will go up (yes, I was making those numbers round).

One more issue that fans of rent regulation ignore is the change in density in housing. Today, there are more small households, one or two people living in space that might have housed four or five before. Even with a stable population and a stable number of units, demand will increase to suit these households. What's difficult for these advocates to rationalize away is that many of the smaller households are retained by subsidized/regulated householders. Think of the family in a NYCHA project that has three bedrooms, which is fine until the children move out and Mom is left on her own. Good luck trying to get her to move into a smaller place without a fight over her "rights". Likewise the rent-stabilized widow who has held on to her two bedroom partment on the UWS. Meanwhile, hard working college grads are piling three or four into a two bedroom apartment because nothing else is available, even on Wall Street salaries.

Capn Transit said...

Thanks, guys! The vacancy numbers are particularly important, because they show the unmet demand.

Alex Knight said...

This is really good stuff, Cap'n. There is a lot of entitlement among certain groups of multi-generational New Yorkers. Only they count when it comes to making decisions about the city and protecting housing. I've lived in New York for 11 years and Park Slope for 8, but I don't count because I'll always be a "transplant" in their eyes. When our first child is born early next year, they won't count, either. If your grandparents immigrated here, you count. But new immigrants, sorry. (So much for NYC being built on immigrants.) You're dead on. It's pretty damn offensive.