Commentary

The Next Agenda

To the Hon. X, Mayor of the City of New York
City Hall
New York, NY

Dear Mayor X:

Now that New York is a safe city, we need to make it an attractive and affordable city.

Since 1980, New York has added more than 300,000 residents. In the same period we've increased the housing stock by about 50,000 units (the numbers are contained in a 1999 study by NYU Law School Professor Michael Schill). The housing market has become so tight that many families -- lower-middle income to lower-upper income -- cannot find affordable housing within the confines of our city.

Across the Hudson, the New Jersey shoreline is booming with new condominiums and apartment complexes. Most of the people who will live in those apartments are people who work in New York and who would prefer to live in New York. Let's keep them and their tax dollars in the five boroughs.

That will require serious and sustained leadership from City Hall. You'll need to concentrate on three big inter-connected initiatives:

  • Change zoning regulations to mix work and home.
  • Populate the waterfront.
  • Stimulate private investment in middle- and upper-income housing.
1) WORK & HOME. New York City's zoning regulations are based on the once-progressive belief that work and housing should be separated. Logical, maybe, for the smokestack era, but dysfunctional for a time when individuals and families often prefer to live and work in the same space. With self-employment and small businesses on the rise, structures that can accommodate flexible living and work arrangements will be as important to the twenty-first century as the invention of the apartment building was during the past century.

2) WATERFRONT. One crucial place to bring that new policy to bear is the waterfront, New York's great underutilized resource. First priority: the East River shoreline of Brooklyn and Queens, where there is an abundance of land zoned for industrial uses that these days no longer require a waterside location. Re-zone that territory and promote residential construction. Rather than follow the models of Co-op City and Starret City, built at the municipal outer edges, we should encourage new communities close to Manhattan, on or near the water. You might want to follow up the prototype success of the New York Waterways boat service and encourage travel-by-ferry all along the East River.

3) STIMULATE PRIVATE HOUSING INVESTMENTS. The East River sites constitute just one testing ground for what should be a new Administration policy: encouraging private investment in middle-and upper-income housing. You may feel some political heat by appearing to neglect low-income housing, so your Administration will need to make a forceful (and truthful) case for the overall benefit to everyone of building or renovating lots of new market-level units, particularly outside of Manhattan. New housing is essential if New York City is to retain and attract a skilled workforce. We have an abundance of opportunities to impede or restrict development but there are scarce incentives for communities to welcome new housing.

New York City must find a way to boost new housing in such a way that it strengthens communities, attracts amenities, and enhances open space. In an era when many Americans are fed up with commuting and suburban sprawl, one of the CityÍs greatest attractions is to live and work in the same place.

Mitchell Moss is the Director of the Taub Urban Research Center at New York University and the Henry Hart Rice Professor of Urban Policy at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

The full text of NYU School of Law Professor Michael Schill's report on reducing the cost of new housing construction in NYC.

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