Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

03.27.13

New York City, NIMBY Paradise

New Yorkers genuinely believe that their housing restrictions are normal

Apparently, there is a popular impression of New York as "of New York as a builder-friendly city that’s constantly exceeding the bounds of rational development".

At least, the New York Observer thinks that New Yorkers think so.  I confess to being a little surprised by this news.  I was under the impression--correctly--that a combination of zoning ordinances, building permits, and local NIMBY opposition had made New York distinctly unfriendly to new development, and that it would be rational to build far more units than the city currently allows.  The average cost of a new home in New York city is $461,000, and in pricey Manhattan neighborhoods it's much higher.  Moreover, that figure includes a lot of studios and small one bedrooms that drag down the average.

Of course, if you live in Observerland, this may not seem so crazy.  True story: when my husband and I were getting ready to move in together, just a year or so after I'd relocated to DC, he pulled me out onto the porch in the middle of a house tour.  It was a lovely little two bedroom house in the U Street neighborhood--not big bedrooms, of course, but if we got a loft bed . . .  

"I'm sorry, but I can't do this," he began.  Cue atrial fibrillation on my part; I'd already arranged to break my lease, and also, I'd gotten rather fond of him.

" . . . I cannot go along with your crazy New York ideas about what constitutes affordable real estate," he continued.  Husband is from the Florida Panhandle, where spending thousands of dollars a month on a 950 square foot house with a postage stamp of a yard does not seem like a once-in-a-lifetime bargain.  

Reader, I married him.  So obviously, we found a house we could agree on--though through a series of unfortunate events which I will not recount here, we did end up spending quite a lot of money on an only-slightly-less-teeny-tiny house with a postage-stamp-sized yard.  But I digress.  I tell you this story not to give you that shifty too-much-information feeling, but to illustrate how New Yorker ideas about real estate look to the rest of the country, where friends do not enthusiastically congratulate you on having somehow secured a grotty 400sf studio with a window and a nearby subway stop for the low-low price of $1200 a month.  

Outside of the Observer's home city, and a few similarly restrictive metro areas, the presumption is that developers should be allowed to build whatever they think will sell, subject to reasonable concerns about thinks like flammability and sewer connections.  They don't let the neighbors tie up your project for years with tangles over landmark preservation or zoning or frivolous complaints to the building commission.  They don't slap height limits on attractive, centrally located neighborhoods.  They don't pass "inclusionary zoning" or affordable housing mandates forcing you to devote a certain number of your units to below-market rents.  And as a result, housing is affordable.

I am constantly surprised by the extent to which New Yorkers regard all this not only laudatory, but normal--even as they bemoan the high cost of housing.  Some of my lefty neighbors on the Upper West Side were at one point simultaneously enthusiastically supporting "affordable housing" organizations--and agitating to block construction of a new building that would ruin their lovely natural light.   Obviously, some of this is sheer hypocrisy; everyone is theoretically in favor of affordable housing, but they are also in favor of getting a high selling price for their home, and when those two conflict . . . 

But as that Observer snippet suggests, much of it isn't hypocrisy.  It's a genuine belief that allowing any developer to build anything at all is an aggressively pro-capitalist position; allowing them to build where you live is extreme generosity.  Coupled with a genuine failure to connect all those neighborhood review boards and zoning restrictions to the fact that there don't seem to be enough apartments to go around.