Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Who's your Suburb Buddy?

Adam Hengels had a good post about fighting rising rents back in 2015. He points out that while "gentrification" battles are almost always fought on the neighborhood level, the problem is actually regional:

The battlefield is not in the gentrifying neighborhoods. It is in the more wealthy neighborhoods where empowered residents fight to keep new people out.

There are tons of pretty suburban towns, and even small cities, that could be cozy, hip, dense alternatives to Manhattan or Brooklyn, but they've got zoning that keeps apartment buildings out and stifles nightlife, giant parking lots surrounding the commuter rail stations, infrequent train service and parking requirements that drive foot traffic away. If they got their act together, a lot of people would be moving there instead of here.

Here's an example: I live in Woodside, Queens. Per capita $24,399, population density 44,500 per square mile. We've got a decent commute to Manhattan (30 minutes to Grand Central), and a nice mix of shops and restaurants (a Walk Score of 94). I'd be happy to have more people here, but if they went someplace else that'd be okay too.

If I walk down to the Long Island Railroad station, I can get a train to Hewlett and take a short walk to the village of Hewlett Bay Park, which Wikipedia lists as the wealthiest per capita place (city, town, village) in the New York metro area at $113,320. Hewlett Bay Park has a population density of just 1,382 people per square mile, and a Walk Score of 42. It's an hour and thirteen minutes to Grand Central: a beautiful walk to the LIRR Far Rockaway Branch station, then change at Penn for the 3 train to the Shuttle.

The population of Hewlett Bay Park is estimated at 437 people, which is about a third the population of my co-op. Their zoning requires that every building be built on a minimum lot size of one acre, which is about a third the size of the lot my co-op is on. If the whole village were the same density as Woodside, it could hold about 17,800 people. Think how rents would go down across the metro area!

Last year we had a huge fight over a ten story building that would have added about 200 units to the neighborhood. That building would have fit on a single one of Hewlett Bay Park's 256 acres. Or if Hewlett Bay Park allowed townhouses near the train station, those 200 units could be spread across ten or twenty acres. My neighbors and I couldn't agree on whether we wanted it here, but I'll bet none of them would have been energetically opposed to putting it in Hewlett Bay Park.

Of course it's unfair to put all the burden on Hewlett Bay Park for accommodating the million or so people who want to live in New York. Right next door is Hewlett Neck, per capita income $88,049, population density 766.2 per square mile. There are a bunch of other wealthy villages and towns that are keeping people out with exclusionary zoning.

So why, even since Adam's post appeared three years ago, do people keep fighting at the neighborhood level? I think there are two reasons: first, the spatial segregation strategy of moving to the suburbs does effectively put a lot of distance between the wealthy and the crowds, not just in terms of raw travel time, or even in terms of social networks, but in terms of migration pressure. My wife and I did look at apartments in Scarsdale, but we're the exception in our class and income bracket. Most of the people moving into our neighborhood have been priced out of Inwood or Ridgewood. The people moving into Ridgewood got priced out of Williamsburg. The people moving into Williamsburg got priced out of Greenwich Village. The people in the Village got priced out of the Upper East Side, and the people there got priced out of Scarsdale. So even if we yell at the people in Ridgewood and Williamsburg it's not going to help much.

The second reason people don't fight Scarsdale is fragmentation. There are lots of wealthy, exclusive suburbs that are keeping people out who then chain-bid my mom's rent up. Why blame Scarsdale for my troubles and not Bronxville? How do I pick one?

It might be possible to do some kind of multilayered market research and find out exactly which set of racist NIMBYs to blame for the migration into your neighborhood, but that's probably not worth the trouble. We can do this quasi-randomly, keeping to a set of basic principles:

  1. It should have a good transit commute. I do not want to take decent car-free Manhattanites and ship them out to Yorktown Heights where they'll all buy Volvos. There are in fact many New York suburbs where you can walk to shopping, walk to the train, walk to everything. If you can't walk to shopping, we'll have to zone for shopping when we zone for apartments.
  2. This should be a place that can sustainably absorb lots more people. That means probably not low-lying areas like Deal or Centre Island. Hewlett Bay Park is on the bay, but it's mostly out of the flood zone and didn't do too bad during Sandy.
  3. Everybody pile on the favored quarter. New York has some suburbs that are not wealthy. Some of them are already changing, like Newark and Rutherford. Others are too poor to be attractive to people who already live in Brooklyn Heights, like Freeport. Let's focus on the top of the food chain.

With that in mind, here are the ten places in the New York area with the highest per capita income where Google Maps gives a transit commute time to Grand Central, with their densities and their walk scores. Next time your local NIMBYs come out in force against a building, pick a town from this list. I've already claimed Hewlett Bay Park for the people of Woodside, so spread things out by picking a different town. If you've already heard someone else using a town, pick a different one. If they're all taken, pull up the next twenty. Make a bunch of buttons saying WHY ISN'T THIS BEING BUILT IN DARIEN? and hand them out. Let's see what happens!

PlaceStateCountyPer capita incomeDensityWalk ScoreTransit lineTransit commute to Grand Central
Hewlett Bay ParkNYNassau$113,3201,38242Far Rockaway1:13
New CanaanCTFairfield$105,846322.786New Canaan1:09
DarienCTFairfield$105,846203.927New Haven0:59
North HillsNYNassau$100,0931,54327Port Washington1:01
WestportCTFairfield$97,39550323New Haven1:08
Sands PointNYNassau$95,647222.423Port Washington1:26
PlandomeNYNassau$95,102857.615Port Washington0:58
MatinecockNYNassau$93,559118.15Oyster Bay1:25
GreenwichCTFairfield$90,0871,27894New Haven0:44

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