By: David A. Smith
Good intentions can be evil, both hands are full of grease. You know, sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace.
– Bob Dylan, 1983
As we’ve seen in earlier parts of this post, Zoning by the Taste Police is excessively complex (and becomes progressively more complicated over time), and adds uncertainty, risk, and cost to any development project, whether new building or rehab/ renovation.
Sources used in this post
The New York Times (May 20, 2016; black font)
Boston Globe (July 24, 2016; brown font)
These features inhibit development across the board, which is bad enough, but in fact ZTP isn’t just an equal-opportunity inhibitor, it actually harms one asset class more than others.
5. Zoning by the Taste Police creates housing scarcity
More than a decade ago, I tumbled to the some early truths about affordable housing, that is always has a cost-value gap and that affordable housing always costs money, but it’s taken me the better part of the decade since to take the logical next steps and formulate the Low of Affordable Housing Economic Bias:
All other things being equal
The Law of Affordable Housing Economic Bias
(The market’s economic bias against affordable housing)
1. Housing is last within development uses. All other things being equal, every other form of urban development (office, commercial, retail, hotel, mixed-use) will yield higher development profit than housing.
2. Affordable rental is last within housing uses. All other things being equal, every other form of urban residential (homeownership, condo, co-operative, market rental) will yield higher development profit than affordable housing.
The Law of Affordable Housing Economic Bias is why affordable housing always has a cost-value gap and why affordable housing always costs money, in one of the sixteen forms of resources (eight of them cash, eight non-cash).
To me the Law of Affordable Housing Economic Bias is as real and as visible as gravity, and because of this here is where my irritation with Zoning by the Taste Police reaches its ultimate crescendo:
ZTP is objectively anti-affordable-housing in the George Orwell sense, which is worth quoting in full:
If you hamper the effort of one side, you automatically help that of the other.
Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one. In practice, ‘he that is not with me is against me’. The idea that you can somehow remain aloof from and superior to the struggle, while living on food which British sailors have to risk their lives to bring you, is a bourgeois illusion bred of money and security.
With a bit of point-for-point substitution of terms, we get this:
Zoning by the Taste Police is objectively anti-affordable-housing. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the affordable housing development effort of one side you automatically help that of the NIMBY-ites. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the fights over urban land use. In practice, ‘he that is not with me is against me’. The idea that you can somehow remain aloof from and superior to the shortage of affordable housing, while living in housing which housing developers have to run the ZTP gauntlet to build, is a bourgeois illusion bred of money and incumbent homeownership.
Once you grasp the Law of Affordable Housing Economic Bias, then the interpretation of this next ZTP example becomes self-evident:
On the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” there on the right side, its cornice almost grazing the N in Dylan, stands 19 Jones Street.
[NB The Times is skittish about posting an image of the album cover, but I’m not – non-profit Fair Use, baby! – so here it is. – Ed.]
Gee, Bob, this is so much denser than Hibbing, Minnesota
It is one of the thousands of buildings in Manhattan with too many dwelling units for its size.
There are simply … too many flats?
Built in 1910 as a tenement, 19 Jones Street predates the zoning code by six years. It belongs to a special family of tenements known as dumbbell apartments, so named because of the way the buildings are squeezed in the middle, creating air shafts.
Just take out a few flats and it’ll be perfect
Such openings were a requirement of the New York State Tenement Housing Act of 1879 –
Again I have to highlight the difference between ARZ and ZTP.
Laundry drying among tenement buildings
– meant to make tightly packed apartments a little bit more livable.
Nineteenth century live-work space:
Necktie workshop, Division Street NYC, 1888, Jacob Riis
Predating city-wide zoning by 37 years, the New York Tenement Actwas a straightforward health-and-safety measure, one that made good sense in an overly dense and fetid urban environment that fostered epidemics of tuberculosis, respiratory illnesses (including pneumonia, New York being cold in the winter), rheumatism and rheumatic heart disease.
Men sleeping on the floor of a New York City homeless shelter, 1886
Back in my early post-graduate youth, I lived in a Cambridge (rent-controlled) railroad tenement flat, which had a small rectangular air shaft smack amidships. It offered no vistas but it created a natural airway that was a relief in summer. Probably 19 Jones Street likewise accommodated aspiring singles in the big city – in fact, many more of them than can now live in Gotham:
Were 19 Jones built today, it would have to be significantly smaller.
ZTP has decided that the building that sticks up must be hammered down.
No more freewheelin’ for you, Mister Dylan
The building’s total dimensions would be nearly halved, and a story or two would have to be chopped off.
The number of apartments would fall sharply, to just eight from 24.
There go sixteen apartments – say, forty young New Yorkers no longer able to live in the West Village – all because Even more ironic is that right nearby is an overhoused rent-controlled tenant who’s smugly inflicting a subsidy on the local theater.
Such limitations can quickly decrease the supply of housing, and most likely drive up rents.
‘Most likely’ is the best you can manage, New York Times? You couldn’t find any real estate expert to state the obvious – it would drive up rents.
[Continued tomorrow in Part 6.]