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The Housing Crisis, Public Space and Social Equity

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ben Tafoya
December 9, 2019

The High Line in New York City is a wonderful achievement in constructing an open space that is available to all amid a reclaimed rail line once set for demolition. Starting in the late 1980’s the surrounding community from the Chelsea neighborhood, officials of the city, the railway and donors combined to bring to life an urban park, art space and urban walkway on the west side of Manhattan. In essence the conversion of the railway to the High Line turned a relic of New York City’s industrial past into an amenity that points to the challenges and paradoxes of United States urban development in the early 21st Century.

The southern end of the walkway allows for access via 14th Street in the old meatpacking district of New York. At the foot there is a vista to the river with a streetscape dotted with high end retail shops and restaurants that are beyond the means of an average citizen. As one climbs the steps and enjoys the beautiful landscaping and unique architecture of the walkway, one is struck by gleaming new towers that line the path of this beautiful space. There are apartments renting for over $5,500 a month for a one bedroom space. Hotel rooms that routinely rent for over $400 per night (for a mid-December weekend). It is hard to imagine a scene better defined to alienate a person from their environment.

In a recent book on the housing crisis, geographer Samuel Stein points to the root causes of the current housing crisis afflicting many of the large cities in the country. In his work, Capital City, Stein analyzes housing and urban development through the lens of a planning profession directed to increased property values (the highest and best use dictum) that has resulted in the increased pressure on rents and home prices and the displacement of families with more modest means. For New York City this story stretches back to the period of de-industrialization covering recent decades. The reuse of manufacturing space, across much of the five boroughs, saw the development of housing as an alternative use that could capture any increase in land values much better than could manufacturing or warehousing.

The drop in manufacturing employment in the New York metro area has been precipitous in recent decades. From a level of 917,000 in January 1990 to 359,000 in January 2019 the leakage of these jobs points to the aggressive reuse of land and buildings for other purposes. Manufacturing, Stein reminds, is organized around minimizing costs particularly for facilities. While others point to the, “Financialization,” of the economy as a whole, Stein points to the outsized role of capital in real estate as a culprit for housing affordability problems. The Low Income Housing Coalition relates that in, “99% of United States counties a full-time worker at the minimum wage can’t afford a one-bedroom apartment at fair market rent.” Beyond the issues of land use, Stein also relates how tax policy, especially incentives, are designed around encouraging developers to build more housing that maximizes tax revenue and does not address the affordability issue. In many of these neighborhoods gentrification pushes out long-time residents in favor of those seeking the amenities and proximity of the city.

In previous writing for PATimes, I have proposed a framework for analyzing the social equity impact of public administration policy and action. The emphasis on increasing property values and investment in real estate, rather than the need for massive increases in housing affordability, shades these policies in a way that increases social inequity. In a recent walk up the High Line, the main path north from 14th street takes one into the Hudson Yards development; a complex of high end retail, with the most expensive multi-family residences and commercial office space imaginable. While controversial, the project has received significant government subsidies and infrastructure. All for facilities far beyond the reach of the average New York resident or visitor to the city. It makes one wonder about policymaking that doesn’t envision working people leaving their dwellings and enjoying amenities affordable at their wages.

Advocates have managed to raise these issues in the public profile with aggressive ideas such as re-establishment of rent control, public land banks, subsidies/caps for security deposits, fare free public transit, just cause eviction, removal of units from short-term rental and more. Presidential candidates are recognizing the urgency of the issue with proposals for significant increases in the construction of public or social housing or, even further, a homes guarantee. The goals of these policies are to even up the power relationship between households and capital rich firms or landlords that own and manage the rental housing stock. Our cities and our public spaces are important contributors to addressing housing challenges. Public spaces have great potential to make positive contributions to working people’s quality of life and to mitigate the chasm of inequality in our society.

Author: Dr. Ben Tafoya is an adjunct faculty member at Northeastern University. He can be reached at [email protected] and is a former academic program director at Walden University. All opinions and mistakes are his alone. He is the author of a chapter in the upcoming volume, Public Affairs Practicuum from Birkdale Publishers.

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