No Babel Tower For Me: Upzoning and the Manhattan Problem

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  1. 1) Yay! A post about New York City, written by another former resident who loves it!

    2) I am a huge fan of upzoning.

    3) I cannot imagine trying to raise two kids in NYC. And I know that millions of people do, and do it well. Living in Maine, I have the unbelievable luxury of being able to take the kids outside when they are driving me bananas, and in the span on ten seconds have them in a space where they can run around and find things to play with and explore to their hearts’ content. This is HUGE for their sanity and mine. This would be the single greatest problem for me about living in NYC. What to do when my children just really need to run around and play and get out of my hair for a bit?

    But man, do I love that city.

    [Edited to add: Oh, and the fact that Sully couldn’t hack it, when I did for six years on a resident’s salary? HA! Try playing the tough guy now, amigo.]Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      I’m not opposed to upzoning but there is a bit of a contradiction between your two and three. The main point of the post was to explore that contradiction. I also suspect that many people feel stir crazy in their own apartments or with roommates and not having kids. I don’t think I could live in a microapartment by myself at this point.


      I have friends who grew up in NYC and one of them lived in a little two bedroom apartment with his parents and sister. They were not working class either. The parents divided one bedroom into two so he and his sister could have space. His sister was much younger and I remember being in the apartment while listening to a very typical teenage fight. It was painful.

      What do you think is the minimum amount of space you need to raise two kids with your husband?

      There are sections of SF that are absolutely suburban looking including with what could only be describe as suburban shopping centers in the city limits. The kind with a huge parking lot in a square shape and a bunch of stores making the border. These are often large stores like PetCo and huge supermarkets. The New Yorker in me is still surprised at seeing these in a city. Also some neighborhoods are highly suburban.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I’m not opposed to upzoning but there is a bit of a contradiction between your two and three.

        Not necessarily. One can think that upzoning is great even if it’s not a good arrangement for us personally. It’s only a problem if we want to force others to live in upzoned arrangements while we are unwilling to.

        Just yesterday the baby was having a (thankfully rare) tantrum. I mentioned to Clancy how glad I was that we didn’t live in an apartment. She commented that we would probably have been kicked out. I commented that state law actually prohibits that (here it does, don’t know about NY). Either way, though, it’s not a problem that can be wished away. Babies will cry. In apartments, neighbors can here. In houses, they can’t.

        On the other hand, back when I was young and single, I would have totally loved to live downtown in a smaller apartment. There just weren’t any available. If they aren’t available because there isn’t sufficient demand, that’s one thing. But I support them being available as long as there are people wanting to fill them up (can pay for it, etc.). If not for current me, than for younger me.

        Right now the issue is housing rental. We have a really crappy market for it in the parts of the country where I’ve lived. I can’t say that’s entirely a market issue – we do have lots of laws and incentives encouraging ownership and so more people buy and that diminishes the rental market – but at least it’s not because of a law on the books.

        The thought occurs to me that some people may be baffled or worse that it matters as much to me as it does the “why” of why housing isn’t available. But to me it matters a great deal.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        The solution is simple: make a law about soundproofing.
        It’s expensive but it adds TONS to the quality of life.
        If we can soundproof gymnasiums to be quiet as mice outside,
        we can damn well soundproof apartments.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        Wait…I’m confused. Upzoning means more total housing space, right? Which means that the market price for housing should decline, which means that for a given price you should be able to afford more space with upzoning than without. Where’s the contradiction?Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        Shouldn’t we also say to people who live in apartments that part of the cost-of-living there is noise?

        If you never want to hear a baby cry, don’t live in an apartment.

        So much of this seems to be people wanting to have their cake and eat it to. I hate that.Report

      • Avatar Rod says:

        @brandon-berg , there’s no contradiction, but it’s also not clear (to me at least) that upzoning will actually result in (at least significantly) less expensive housing. Essentially, you’re making a ceterus paribus argument but it’s not clear that the ceteri are actually paribus, so to speak (in probably mangled Latin).

        First, the high existing housing prices indicates that a large number of people are willing to pay quite a bit to live there. Which makes it seem likely that any additional housing units will be quickly filled with new residents. So, instead of more housing for the same number of people, you actually end up with more housing for more people. And that’s a perfectly acceptable result.

        The problem is that you’ve applying a perfectly valid closed static equilibrium analysis to a fundamentally open dynamic system.Report

    • Avatar Murali says:

      What to do when my children just really need to run around and play and get out of my hair for a bit?

      Go downstairs. In Singapore, where 80% live on public housing, the ground floor of most flats have what is called a void deck. It’s basically an open concept space where old folks can sit while young kids can hang out. When I was younger, I used to see lots of kids using void decks to play street soccer. using pillars to mark out the boundary of the playing area. Nowadays a lot of flats are clustered around fields and playgrounds. The void deck also need not be completely empty. There is often a place for a neighbourhood community centre (who manage the neighbourhood) or sometimes even small provision shops. True, you don’t have a front or back yard, but in Singapore, neither do many of the landed properties either. Kids who stay in terraced or semi detached houses play out in the street (at least if they play anymore)Report

  2. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Isn’t the up-zoning or not issue a bit of a false choice? You can easily increase San Francisco’s density and housing without building Manhattan style skyscraper apartment buildings, which are rarer than most people think even in Manhattan. If you allow for moderately taller apartments, somewhere between five to ten floors, you have increased density and housing stock without going into the skyscraper zone.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      Matt Y and other neo-liberals write “upzone upzone upzone” like it is a Zen Koan.

      They do not say how high. Most of the condos being built are well above 5-10 stories. I suspect that Matt Y just saying upzone is really what gets critics to think he wants to Manhattanize everything without getting people used to the big buildings and without any concern for anything else.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I would guess that MattY wants to upzone as much as the market can bear. Which yeah, probably means a fair number of Very Tall Buildings in cramped quarters like NYC and SF. Especially if we don’t (and we shouldn’t) use eminent domain to increase the height on buildings where the owners don’t want to build up.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        You can probably get away with building tall buildings in certain areas of San Francisco without changing the look and feel of San Francisco that much. In the downtown area, SOMA, and the areas towards the Pacific ocean or the southern border. Areas where tourist frequent should probably be preserved.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        It’s almost as though they’re not interested in micromanaging the economy. Those crazy neoliberals!Report

      • Avatar Dan Miller says:

        @brandon-berg I am a big fan of upzoning, but it’s overly simplistic to reduce this to “market freedom whoo!”. There actually are clear externalities if you build tall apartment buildings in a neighborhood that previously had none–issues of shade, traffic, and “neighborhood feel” are actually real things. Do they get overvalued by NIMBY neighbors who have zero incentive to allow additional housing? Of course. But using right-libertarian arguments won’t get you far either, especially in places where most people reject those arguments.Report

  3. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    This is my preferred solution to the housing crisis in American cities:

    I don’t agree with rent control but on other aspects of housing, I tend towards full socialist solutions.Report

    • Avatar North says:

      Curious LeeEsq. If I’m reading this correctly, and if I’m not feel free to correct me, Gemeindebau
      involves government (local or otherwise) moving into urban areas with housing issues and, uh, upzoning large areas by fiat.
      I don’t see how this would jive with ND’s complaints about upzoning, I mean we’re talking here about government (mostly local) preventing communities from upzoning into higher density housing via market processes. Maybe it’s my neoliberal roots but I’d think that trying to remove or ease the barriers to natural development might produce better (and cheaper) results than applying new state interventions to compel development.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Considering how much contractors lie and dont’ actually do their damn job, or follow the damn law as written…Report

      • Avatar Rod says:

        Yes, North, remove or relax the overt restrictions but also employ a Georgist split-rate property tax reform. Tax the land heavily (~80% of rental value) while taxing improvements, the buildings, lightly if at all.

        Our current typical property tax structure discourages development by taxing the owner of a newer, larger building more heavily than an adjoining property that’s empty or occupied by an older, smaller structure.

        Split-rate taxation encourages building up, infilling vacant lots, and putting space to its best and highest use by marshalling market forces while maintaining generous revenues for local governments.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        It’s never really been clear to me how you decide how much of a property’s value is the land and how much is the improvement, since there’s pretty complex interplay between those two variables, and also the value of all the surrounding properties. If you build a residential highrise on a property, that raises the value of the surrounding properties by providing a customer base for businesses. When people build those businesses, it raises the value of your property, because it’s very convenient for people who work at and/or patronize those businesses. Maybe there’s some kind of fancy statistical regression you can do, but it’s not immediately obvious to me that this is the case.

        Also, I’d like to point out that right here, before our very eyes, people are proposing that the government go directly from intervening in a way that causes a problem to intervening in a way that attempts to solve it, without trying the intermediate step of simply stopping the interventions that cause the problem. This is why we’re skeptical of claims that existing government programs must be necessary because if they weren’t we wouldn’t have them.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        We’re going to need a serious discussion of Georgism one of these days. How do we–in practice–distinguish between the rent on the land and the value of the improvements (something most economists argue can’t be done)? The value of undeveloped land changes in response to development on nearby land, so do late buyers get charged more rent-tax than first buyers/developers? (I’m no expert on Georgism–there may be an answer to that I’m not seeing.) Also, the potential for rent spurs innovation (c.f., Schumpeter), and Gochenour and Caplan argue that a Georgian tax would have a huge disincentive effect on the incentive to search for valuable productive uses of land.

        In general, Georgism has been around a long time and hasn’t made serious inroads to mainstream economics, which mostly treats it as being right in theory, but pragmatically useless. Are they all really that stupid?Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        Jinx, Brandon.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        Also, it seems to me that a very heavy tax on land would be distortionary, leading people to build up too much. Building up is great, when there’s economic justification for it, but it’s wasteful when there isn’t. Unless there’s some identifiable market failure that’s causing developers not to build up enough, there’s no reason for the government to levy taxes in a way that favors building up.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        Uh oh. Does this mean you get to punch me?Report

      • Avatar North says:

        Rod, that’s an interesting twist indeed. I don’t have any moral qualms about such a split rate regime but I do share some of the Prof’s concerns about practical application.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:


        Nah, I’m an anabaptist pacifist. It just means you have to buy the beer iffen we ever meet.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        North, it’s more like low and medium income housing done right. It’s the projects but built as apartments that people actually want to live in.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        Lee, I think I’m clear on the what of it. I would point out that this is effectively a removal of the NIMBY and other barriers to development in dense urban areas, just with them only being removed for a state operated developer rather than private ones.Report

      • Avatar Rod says:

        @brandon-berg , and I’d like to point out that my first words on the subject were “remove or relax the overt restrictions”. I guess I’m not allowed to have other thoughts on the issue, like lowering taxes on your beloved capital. What’s wrong with removing an additional disincentive?

        The point you’re apparently not getting is that land is fixed in supply, therefore the supply is by definition totally inelastic wrt price, and can suffer no deadweight loss as a consequence of taxation <= the rental value.

        The second point you don't ken is that the rent always gets paid. It may be implicit or come in the form of an opportunity cost but it's always there. And since rent can't stimulate production of the non-producible, there's no particular economic argument for that to stay in private hands. One can attempt moral arguments perhaps, but understand that you're arguing in favor of unearned income unrelated to the production of value over income from labor and investment.Report

      • Avatar Rod says:

        @jm3z-aitch ,
        We’re going to need a serious discussion of Georgism one of these days.

        I’m sorta curious why you say that. I mean it’s not exactly a burning issue on the stage of public debate, and AFAIK I’m the only one here that’s even brought it up, and even at that maybe three times over the last two years. Should I feel… flattered?

        How do we–in practice–distinguish between the rent on the land and the value of the improvements (something most economists argue can’t be done)?

        (This is for both you and your jinx.) Well, despite the economist’s objections, it obviously can be done since it has and is being done. How? I dunno. But professional appraisers have standardized, accepted methods where it’s practiced. I guess it’s the difference between wanting to get a job done and making excuses for why it can’t be done.

        The value of undeveloped land changes in response to development on nearby land, so do late buyers get charged more rent-tax than first buyers/developers? (I’m no expert on Georgism–there may be an answer to that I’m not seeing.) Also, the potential for rent spurs innovation (c.f., Schumpeter), and Gochenour and Caplan argue that a Georgian tax would have a huge disincentive effect on the incentive to search for valuable productive uses of land.

        Um… no. The LVT is basically just a yearly, ad valorem tax, essentially a property tax. Your question seems to indicate that you believe it to be a one-time assessment, like a sales tax. The property is just re-appraised periodically and the tax adjusted accordingly.

        As to your second point, that’s a bit of a red herring. It might contain some truth if actual proposals from actual Georgists were for a 100% tax rate on rents. That’s generally not the case and I specified 80% in my comment.

        The other good reason to aim for something less than 100% is that any property appraisal, whether you attempt to separate land from improvements or not, is inherently an estimate. The 80% bit gives you room for error. In fact, I would go even farther than to characterize it as a simple measurement problem. I would say that the thing we call value actually exists as a probability function describing the likelihood of observing a transaction at any given price.

        For the purposes here though, rent may also be thought of as the price you’re willing to pay to exclude others from using the land. As a consequence, in an auction scenario the lease should be awarded to the winning bidder but at the price offered by the second highest bidder.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:


        Because it’s an intriguing curiosity. And since when isn’t some idea broached here mot ripe for discussion?

        Can we really disaggregate the land value from the improvement value, or are we doing a calculation that just claims to do so? The fact that economists generally say we can’t makes me leery.

        But while I admit I don’t fully understand this, I’m stuck on certain problems of valuation and its effects. Let’s consider, for example, a fixed income person living on a lot in a relatively undeveloped area. As the area gets developed, the value of undeveloped land gets bid up.

        1. Is that increase in purchase price of undeveloped land reflected in a higher tax?

        2. If so, does that mean the fixed-income person, who values her land enough to not sell it, gets taxed off of it?

        3. If the answer to 1 is no, then what time period’s land purchase price is used to determine the taxable value?Report

      • Avatar Rod says:

        @jm3z-aitch , Okay. Cool. Given that I appear to be the local subject matter expert, it would be logical for me to lead off with the GP. However, I’m currently sans laptop and I can barely deal with commenting with my phone, let alone composing a full post, so it will have to wait.

        Can we really disaggregate the land value from the improvement value, or are we doing a calculation that just claims to do so? The fact that economists generally say we can’t makes me leery.

        I’m not sure what more I can say on the subject without seeing their precise arguments. We know without a doubt that an unimproved lot in a developed area has a higher value than an identical parcel out in the sticks. I also know, from looking at my homeowners policy, that my house has a particular value independent of the lot. Is the argument that the aggregated value is something other than the linear sum?

        Bog standard Georgist orthodoxy holds that the entire difference in value between identical parcels of combined real estate in different locations is attributable solely to the value of unimproved land. I don’t think I agree, given that I make my living transporting capital goods from where they’re plentiful and cheap (e.g., the factory dock) to where they’re more scarce and dear. But I don’t know that the distinction actually matters since it’s all a reflection of “site value,” a Georgist term referring to societally generated value based on location or proximity.

        To your numbered questions: Yes, Yes, and N/A. I’ll give you this much, you’re quick with the standard objections. This is the “Widow Smith” objection. To answer, note that this can already happen with standard property taxes. Second, I would caution that you’re treading dangerously close to making an argument for a kind of rent control. Is there any particular reason for Widder Smif to be immune to changing market pressures?Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:


        OK, I’ll try to ask questions with short answers.

        I get your point about treading dangerously close to favoring rent control. I don’t agree, though, because that seems to me to not distinguish between renting and ownership. Does Georgism –as a practical matter–effectively treat property “ownership” as “renting from the government?”

        Re: Value. Drawing on my approach to economics I would say value is subjective, and that no item’s value can really be identified absent its involvement in a market transaction. So to identify the value of my unimproved land by the sale of other land is at best a proxy measure. That is, all property taxes are at best proxy measures. Is Georgism cool with saying the rent-tax is based on a property measure, or are they claiming there is really objective valuation? (I get that’s not any kind of killer objection, and I’m not trying to use it that way; just trying to better understand the theory.)

        Is Georgism in any way an overall theory of economics, with broader applications, or is it just about taxing away land rent.

        And although this is not strictly speaking a question about the economics of Georgism, does Widow Smith create a political problem for it? In California Widow Smith was a likely voter for Prop 13, right?Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:


        Not trying to be unfair, and pile on, but just trying to get a couple more questions out while they’re in my head. I understand you don’t have your laptop and may be on the road, so I don’t expect or demand that you make any extraordinary efforts here.

        1. Is it really true that land can’t be created? Historically we see examples of it happening rather literally: Much of San Francisco being built on landfill, the Netherlands having reclaimed land from the sea with dikes, etc. And it can happen virtually, too, as in cocks and restaurants built out over the water, and the barge that Google is building something on in San Francisco Bay. And doesn’t building a high-rise effectively create land, to the extent that much of land’s value is space and proximity to other people/businesses? That may be way too much to ask you to answer on a cell phone, so if so, just say so and I won’t press.

        2. As another practical political matter–which of course is separate from the theoretical correctness of the issue–can you foresee a way to actually implement the land tax as the sole tax? When more tax expenditures are desired, for whatever purpose, wouldn’t all those previously-taxes-but-now-untaxed activities become ripe for re-taxation? Would you favor a constitutional amendment to bar any but land taxes?Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Does Georgism –as a practical matter–effectively treat property “ownership” as “renting from the government?”

        Don’t property taxes in general?Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:


        I don’t know. Intuitively it seems like the answer is yes, but does the logic extend to other forms of taxation? Currently property taxes also tax the capital improvements–does that mean we’re just renting our capital improvements from government? Some states tax business equipment–does that mean businesses are just renting their equipment from the government?

        But to provide the public services we want, government has to tax something. Choosing to tax property vs. choosing to tax your labor seems to me, from that perspective, not any kind of claim of ownership; it’s just a pragmatic political choice of what to tax. The Georgist position sounds to me (emphasize sounds and to me) like it’s claiming something substantively different from pragmatism.

        (As I read stuff on it, it seems to include a mix of normative–even moralistic–thought with the pure economic calculation aspect. It’s reminiscent of reading a lot of the stuff written about Austrian economics. Being fairly Austrian myself, I’m hesitant to chuck it all on those grounds, but at the same time it’s that weird intermixture of moralistic fanaticism that I think obscures the real value in Austrian thought and prevents the good insights that it has from being taken as seriously as they deserve.)Report

      • Avatar Rod says:

        OK, I’ll try to ask questions with short answers.

        Thanks, I appreciate that.

        Re: Ownership vs. tenancy: The Georgist take on it is subtle and it depends on who you ask. The orthodox position is that, morally, land can’t ever properly be considered absolute private property. On the other hand, George recognized the economic value of private land ownership. The solution perhaps is to see “ownership” as consisting of a bundle of rights, privileges, and responsibilities. So in a Georgist schema land ownership would consist of all the rights and privileges currently recognized contingent on the responsibility to remit ground rent to the community. I would call it a kind of high powered tenancy. The only thing you really lose is the ability to profit from gains in value, which a Georgist would claim you have no moral right to in the first place since such gain is generated by the community via increased demand.Report

      • Avatar Rod says:

        James, I’m going to address your questions in separate posts. The clipboard functionality of Android leaves a lot to be desired.

        Re: Value. I don’t think we’re really disagreeing here. I was just trying to get fancy and draw an analogy to quantum mechanics. We can’t observe “value”, we can only observe prices. And so what I’m saying is that value is a real, albeit abstract, thing but it exists in the form of a probability function describing expected observations of prices. A negotiated price is like a QM wavefunction collapsing to reveal the position of a subatomic particle.Report

      • Avatar Rod says:

        @jm3z-aitch , another installment:
        s Georgism cool with saying the rent-tax is based on a property [proxy?] measure, or are they claiming there is really objective valuation?

        The goal is as accurate and objective a valuation as possible, no different than any other property tax appraisal. I’m not trying to evade the inherent difficulty so let me outline a few suggested methods I’ve seen over the years.

        First, the standard idea of county appraisers computing it using comparable sales and perhaps drawing maps of land-value contours. Runs into the problem of too few, indeed if any, sales of comparable unimproved parcels. One fairly decent method is to do the combined appraisal using bog standard methods, then determining the value of the structures based on size, materials, number of baths, etc., applying an appropriate depreciation schedule, and subtracting that from the combined figure. Finally, from that you would construct a map of land values and smooth the results appropriately.

        That’s pretty straightforward but it suffers from a theoretical difficulty at very high tax rates. Purchase price is related to rental value through the interest rate as R = P x i, or P = R / i. As the tax rate approaches 100% the rent realized by the owner approaches zero (that’s the whole point after all). At very high tax rates, say 95%, the calculation outlined in the previous paragraph is increasingly noisy and the land valuation less precise (and it’s already an estimate). In the end it’s not a bad method for figuring land value in the absence of high LVT but it’s problematic for ongoing valuations in such a regime.

        This problem gestures toward a relevant fact that’s obscured by our current property regime; rent is a more fundamental measure of value than price. Skeptical? What happens to home prices in response to changes in interest rates? They rise when interest rates fall and vice versa. This suggests that we would be better off observing rents directly if possible. Perhaps our appraiser could employ a procedure similar to that outlined above using observed rents as an input, or perhaps a combined method.

        Even more direct would be some manner of auction but this gets clumsy with simultaneously negotiating a land rent with the government and a purchase price for the sticks and bricks from the seller.

        One intriguing suggestion I’ve seen put forth is a system of self-assessment with public posting of said assessments and some system for posting challenge bids and compelling a sale upon successful challenge. I think you would also need to have fixed lease lengths in this scenario.

        So, anyway, this is definitely a subject that Georgists have spent a fair amount of time thinking (and arguing!) about. The overall consensus is that it’s a solvable technical problem if the political will is present.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:


        1. Thanks for the response. I’m sure when you’re on the road you don’t have too much time for dawdling (or do current regs make you dawdle too damn much?).

        2. I’m really trying to draw more explanation out of you, so I can get a better understanding, rather than argue with you, so I’m going to chew on these response for a while instead of immediately responding with more questions.

        3. Besides, I’m neck deep in talking about rent-seeking! (And, yes, the relevance of that to this discussion is rolling around in the back of my mind *grin*).Report

      • Avatar Rod says:

        Let me jump to this next topic because it’s foundational to Georgist theory…

        1. Is it really true that land can’t be created?

        Yes, by definition, but we need to distinguish between land and Land. In Georgist theory Land refers to a more general concept along the lines of “natural resources” or “natural opportunities”. In contrast, land (small l) refers to acres and is contained within and is the largest component of Land. Other species of Land include the EM spectrum, water in its various forms, subsurface minerals, oil and gas, and even desirable satellite orbits. Once you grok the concept the list is quite long.

        On the other hand, the list you offered are examples of capital projects taking advantage of natural opportunities. The Dutch could only do what they’ve done because the continental shelf is so shallow there. Likewise in San Francisco and similar places.

        As to things like multi-story buildings and the Google barge, the former is just making more intensive use of existing land. It’s not as if the things are floating in mid-air (although how cool would that be?). And the Google barge is no more Land than any other boat, large or small. Basically, if someone built it, it ain’t Land. And conversely, if it’s Land, you didn’t build that.

        Having said all that, there are interesting questions to be raised along the lines of when, if ever, do certain kinds of capital projects (e.g., SF and Holland) effectively become Land for practical purposes. My opinion is that the essence of Land is “stuff we’ve found” as opposed to “stuff we made”, and we should think about it the same way we think about copyrighted material passing into public domain. But that’s just me and some purists will disagree.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        My opinion is that the essence of Land is “stuff we’ve found” as opposed to “stuff we made”

        OK, that does raise a question (for clarification, not argument). Coal, or gold, are found naturally in the environment, not made by man. So do those count as Land? But they are not free to gather, so they are not actually freely available. How does Georgism address that (because I have to assume there’s no way an issue like that hasn’t been addressed).Report

      • Avatar Rod says:

        I’m sure when you’re on the road you don’t have too much time for dawdling (or do current regs make you dawdle too damn much?).

        Sometimes, especially with electronic logs (no cheating!), but today the deal is that despite a load appointment at 1:00 p.m. I’m still waiting for a dock assignment. Sometimes this job really sucks.Report

      • Avatar Rod says:

        OK, that does raise a question (for clarification, not argument). Coal, or gold, are found naturally in the environment, not made by man. So do those count as Land? But they are not free to gather, so they are not actually freely available. How does Georgism address that (because I have to assume there’s no way an issue like that hasn’t been addressed).

        In general minerals are Land when they’re in the ground and tangible Capital once they’re extracted. Probably the purist way for a government to collect those rents is to just retain ownership of those minerals to market while contracting with private firms through competitive bidding to do the actual extraction. It’s too bad Chavez is such an asshat in other ways because he has about the right idea wrt to Venezuela’s oil.Report

      • Avatar Rod says:

        Is Georgism in any way an overall theory of economics, with broader applications, or is it just about taxing away land rent.

        Mostly the latter, I suppose. George articulated views on other economic topics, for instance, he was a staunch free trader when that wasn’t mainstream, but I don’t know how much of that to consider Georgism as opposed to just “other stuff Henry George believed.” He’s considered a Classical economist but so are both Smith and Marx if you believe Wikipedia so I’m not sure how much that means.

        A lot of Georgists prefer to refer to themselves as Geoists (geo- referring to “earth” ) to separate the broader class of theories incorporating the principle of LVT from the specific teachings of George himself. It’s like the relationship between socialism in general and Marxism–related, and based on, but not identical. I’d consider myself a Geoist rather than a Georgist per se.

        For what it’s worth, the vast majority–like 90%–of the Georgists/Geoists I know are libertarians, and one of the most prominent advocates in the USA is a fairly hard-boiled Austrian economist and libertarian teaching at a college in California.

        To be honest, I’d call George a weak to middling economic theorist at best. For instance, his theory of Capital and Interest is downright bizarre in my view. His strength in my view lay in his talents as an advocate for progressive reforms. He was first and foremost a journalist and only a self-taught amateur in economics. Hell, I have loads more formal training in economics than he did as do yourself. But he was a gifted orator that filled lecture halls (a popular form of entertainment back then) and he was at his best when laying out the moral argument.

        And although this is not strictly speaking a question about the economics of Georgism, does Widow Smith create a political problem for it? In California Widow Smith was a likely voter for Prop 13, right?

        Heh, Prop. 13 is considered the stupidest thing ever by Georgists. Oh Lord, the politics! I hate politics, really I do.

        I’m a realist like you. The politics on a full-throated version of Georgist reform truly suck. It’s harder to explain than Obamacare and frightfully trivial to demagogue. I can only imagine what Fox News would do with it.Report

      • Avatar Rod says:

        James, i think this last covers the last of your questions at least until you have any follow-ups:

        As another practical political matter–which of course is separate from the theoretical correctness of the issue–can you foresee a way to actually implement the land tax as the sole tax?

        I’m not actually an advocate of the Single Tax, at least not as the sole tax for government to rely on. My reasons are philosophical, political, and economic. Ideally, I believe taxation should be primarily seen as a tool to correct for externalities and to charge for communal services. So, for instance, while an orthodox Georgist would completely remove property taxes on buildings I would retain them sufficiently to fund at least the majority of police and fire protection since that property is primarily what those services are charged with protecting. It seems a logical way to fund it in proportion to the value rendered.

        As to the LVT itself I have to delve into a bit of philosophy. Classical Georgism sees land as basically un-ownable in the conventional sense and rents as properly claimed by the community at large. I (and some others) disagree, seeing Land as properly being owned by all the individuals in the community as joint and several property. Accordingly, we propose that the proceeds from the LVT be distributed as a Citizens Dividend. That’s what Jeffrey Smith was referring to in his comments to you in your rents thread.

        Some, most perhaps, propose to simply distribute it as a form of GMI (seat of pants guesstimate puts it at around $1000/mo per person). My own proposal is to create personal social credit accounts that would be accessible for healthcare/insurance, education, disability insurance, and retirement. I actually worked out scenarios on a spreadsheet and it’s pretty slick. It’s enough cash to cover distributed health care costs, allow every child to purchase a quality education as far as their ambitions and abilities will take them, and build up a million dollar retirement nest-egg by 50 or 60 depending on how much education you purchase. It would be real property to pass down to heirs unlike social security. I actually think Roger would find it intriguing.

        When more tax expenditures are desired, for whatever purpose, wouldn’t all those previously-taxes-but-now-untaxed activities become ripe for re-taxation? Would you favor a constitutional amendment to bar any but land taxes?

        The question is sort of moot since I’m not advocating a strict Single Tax. But my plan would take SS, Medicare, Medicaid, and all local, state, and federal funding off the general revenue table. What would remain would be a lot smaller and at the federal level consist primarily of defense, putting that expense squarely in the public eye along with crap like farm subsidies.Report

      • Avatar Rod says:

        Dang! That should read, “… all local, state, and federal funding for education off the general revenue table. ”

        Although if I do say so myself, not bad for pecking it all out on a phone.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:


        Thanks much. I’ll chew on all that for a while. Keep the shiny side up.Report

  4. Avatar Will Truman says:

    I think there are two issues here: what we want, and what we want for others (or what we want others to do, morelike).

    This is the sort of thing that drives me nuts. Not this post, which is good, but overall questions about what sort of housing we should have. This is, by my reckoning, largely a market question.

    Back before you were a regular (at least I don’t think you were around yet) I used to find myself on the opposite site of the argument than I am now. Which is to say, the anti-density guy. Now I am as often as not the pro-density guy when the subject comes up. The thing is, though, that my views haven’t really changed. The context of the discussion has.

    Trying to shoehorn people into dense living arrangements is a bad idea. But so is trying to prevent dense arrangements by objecting to microapartments (which you’re not, but that takes us back to Seattle conversation had here a while back).

    To me, it’s scarcely my business if upzoning occurs, or not, provided that it’s how people want to live or don’t want to live. I suspect in tight quarters like NYC or SF, it’s going to make sense to have dense living because that’s the only way you’re going to fit in a maximum number of people. I’m open to alternatives such as providing rail from the suburbs so that people can have larger arrangements elsewhere, so long as we’re not forcing people to the suburbs by preventing the construction of new places*. Likewise, I have no problem with people ditching the suburbs to move into city housing provided that they’re doing so by choice**.

    NIMBYism only comes into play when you’re trying to prevent people from moving near you. And yeah, that’s problematic in a pretty serious way. I am comfortable with a degree of NIMBYism for some things (the bar example we’ve talked about) provided that there are accommodations that can be made. But NIMBYism that keeps people from moving where you live? I have little patience for that. I’m sorry that you purchased a house on the outer rung of a city and just assumed that outward development would just stop, but that’s exactly what the people who lived in the next rung in thought and you were allowed to move there anyway and don’t pull up the latter. I’m sorry if you got a condo with a view and some new development is going to change that view, but your condo is almost certainly in somebody else’s way. And on and on.

    * – To be clear, I am talking about preventing it for the sake of aesthetics, property values, or class demarcation. I’m not talking about safety regulations that make upzoning financially prohibitive.

    ** – Yes, yes, there are externalities to different housing arrangements. My preference is to try to capture those externalities as best we can, as opposed to saying that because of these externalities we are going to prevent it from happening.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      There are two parts of the housing crisis:

      1. Affordability and rent

      2. Environmental concerns

      They can be separate or overlap but a lot of urban planning types do dislike the environmental impact of suburban sprawl which includes high use of fosil fuels among other issues.

      Though part of the reason for sprawl is that many people seem to want breathing space. So you can deal with rent and affordability through upzoning and building but you can’t deal with the breathing room issue. There is a utopian streak in a lot of urban planners and it seems to involve converting people to living in much denser quarters. I think this is possible but not at NYC levels.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        It’s funny the common ground that we actually do have on this issue. Like Richard Florida. And skepticism towards urban planning people into density.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        I personally love cities and like living in fairly dense to dense areas. Even my favorite suburbs tend to be built on older and denser models like a traditional English village (central shopping area with walkable residential neighborhoods)

        But the United States is large and reality states that we still have a lot of land to use and a lot of people seem to like their breathing space.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        My biggest problem isn’t so much low-density has auto-dependent building practices. If suburbs were built more like traditional towns, where you could actually walk to places, I’d be a lot happier with them.Report

      • Avatar Patrick says:

        No, there are three.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:


        I think there is an inner-tension in democracies between civil liberty and good policy.

        The Environmental concerns are absolutely good policy (especially making us less fossil-fuel dependent) but the environmental side has a piss-poor track record of convincing people of this and in a democratic country that is very large if people want suburbs, suburbs they will have.

        I think too many people on the left place turn fact into axiom and tautology and dismiss the need for rhetoric and argument. This will probably get me accused of being a concern troll.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        3) Fiscal concerns. I don’t want to have to fucking pay for millions of people who thought they could retire on their stupid house, when any blooming idiot can look around and see what a vicious cycle does to a suburb. (Unmaintained pools give mosquitos. And you won’t like the other neighbors).

        4) Lack of infrastructure in cities. It is going to cost BILLIONS to fix Pittsburgh’s infrastructure. Not add new things, just fix it. Delayed maintenance sucks, and we’re gonna need to pay for it.

        5) Labor Market Fragmentation. If you can’t get from one side of your city to the other on a paycheck, you don’t have a single job market anymore. You have multiple, and people tend to be sticky about housing.Report

      • Avatar Maribou says:

        @leeesq That was actually one of my favorite things about Auckland – all the suburbs (at least the ones I went to) were “village model” with town centers of their own that you could walk to and street-side shops. I so wish Co Springs was built on that plan, but we’d need public transit that actually worked (and people who actually chose public transit over the other options… speaking of vicious circles).Report

    • Avatar Cascadian says:

      @will-truman I’ve seen you mention a conversation on Seattle a couple of times. Could you post a link to that?Report

  5. Avatar Francis says:

    One really big problem with upzoning is that a lot of infrastructure gets built with a certain density in mind. Roads are the obvious one; water and sewer less often talked about but even harder to resize (being underground and all). And all of a sudden you need more parks, more schools, more police stations, more fire stations, more hospitals, more government. And all of this has to get jammed in and around existing land uses, or seized from unhappy registered voters.

    (People who recommend the Manhattanization of highly desirable communities should read up on the trials and tribulations of building major public transportation infrastructure in LA County. One particular highway cost hundreds of millions of dollars per mile. [The 105 Freeway cost about $2.3 billion for 17 miles.] Any underground project starts in the billions. And I could swear I just recently read a post about the problems of bringing large amounts of reliable water to LA.)

    And public transportation doesn’t scale easily — it’s actually quite hard to go from car-only to car-plus-rare-bus to car-plus-reliable-bus to car-plus-light rail to car-plus-subway to no-car. Most steps require major investments that may well be inconsistent with the prior step.

    Finally, while a certain amount of NIMBYism is disguised racism or an overly developed sense of entitlement, a lot of it is a simple desire for continuity. I like my Long Beach house a lot. But I like it even more because of the community in which it is placed. I would bitterly resent and oppose a dramatic increase in zoning density for no other reason than it would change my sense of place.

    So all in all, I much prefer for cities to try to set land uses early in the planning process. That way, developers, residents, elected officials and bureaucrats spend less time at loggerheads.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      The high costs of infrastructure in the United States has more to do with the procedures for contracts in this country than the actual cost of projects many times.

      • Avatar Patrick says:

        “Many times” may be accurate, generally, but specific cases… when you’re talking about tall buildings, scaling up infrastructure is indeed a huge problem.

        A while back I read a rather exhaustive piece about the construction of a high rise in New York (?) that detailed all of the public works projects that had to be completed in order to get the thing to operate, since a high rise (in many cases) is effectively a small city, in terms of resource needs. Just flushing the damn toilets is a big deal.

        Unsurprisingly, it’s not uncommon for private enterprise to pay a fraction of the cost of this re-engineering. Even when the developer gets hit with the full bill, which apparently is rare… they don’t pay full maintenance cost; the operations costs of the utility are usually spread out among everybody.

        Damn, I wish I could find that article. Anyway, Francis has a point, is all I’m saying.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        you assume that the maintenance actually gets installed and completed. and continues to function.
        This is rarely the case.Report

      • Avatar Patrick says:

        Yes, Kim this is rarely the case and we know because of the giant multi-ton piles of shit in the streets of New York and the lack of running water in the Empire State Building…

        (sigh). Goodness, woman, try for a moment to not reply to every comment in every thread with a two sentence blathering of random thoughts. Discipline.

        Six sentences, Kim. If you don’t feel like writing at least six sentences, just lower the rate at which you hit the “Submit” button to… oh, maybe a fifth of the time that you hit it now.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        you assume that the maintenance actually gets installed

        I didn’t know that maintenance was something that got installed. I thought it was installations that got maintained.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Sorry, I ought to cite my sources:
        Hot damn, NYC is WORSE than Pittsburgh (If I remember right we overflow on a quarter inch).
        Dammit, we’ve got an excuse for delayed maintenance (the whole city imploding thing).
        Ah, well, I doubt there are many places in NYC where family dogs run through e coli contaminated streams (and then shake all over the wellheeled pedestrians).Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Public transportation does scale easily.
      Try some gondolas. Use of public airspace for transportation is fun!Report

  6. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    I think Townhouses with close by public greenspace / parks is about the densest I can handle. Preferably if I’m close to open terrain.

    We are considering moving to Issaquah in a few years for a place like that above. I enjoy having gardens, but I hate maintainingReport

  7. Avatar Chasm says:

    Are the issues that make New York unbearable for most people unrelated to the size of the apartments and living on the 39th floor?

    No, they are not. The issue of pedestrian density of sidewalks is actually a VERY BIG DEAL. And the density of sidewalks is correlated to the nearby proximity of 39-floor buildings. Manhattan becomes undesirable because the pedestrian density exceeds the ability to not get bashed in the shoulder by a passing stranger on the way Union Square. Williamsburg is/was desirable until several 39-story buildings were built along the waterfront, creating pedestrian and auto traffic headaches in the surrounding area. New York remains livable as long as there is some connection on a human scale, after which, all bets are off. Yes, you can find a dense, urban zone with walkable streets, plenty of parking and lively street life in Greenpoint or Astoria – but how long can we keep them?Report

  8. Avatar Rod says:

    Good article, ND. I grew up in the sticks and live there now, but I’ve lived in cities as well, most relevantly in a high rise apartment building on Chicago’s north side. Some of my thoughts:

    1. Nobody really understands land issues like Georgists, given that it’s sort of their specialty. Georgist theory absolutely predicts that housing prices in city cores are going to be high and there’s nothing you can really do about that. Upzoning is fine (Georgists tend to be against most zoning anyway), but increased people density means increased demand for services which increases the surrounding ground rents. It’s a stochastic, recursive spiral and it’s a good thing.

    2. To a certain extent housing costs between suburbs and urban cores can best be understood as the sum of rents and commuting costs.

    3. As a consequence of 1 and 2, above, the only way to make housing “affordable” for low-income workers is too… wait for it… increase their income. Professionals well understand that principle and often demand higher salaries in areas with high costs of living. Why would it be different for the blue collar folks?

    4. I read somewhere that streets occupy something like 40% of the land area in the typical city. Given the astronomical values for land in city cores, that seems horribly wasteful.

    5. Residential densities would seem to run into a sort of soft upper limit due to the psychological need for a view. Would you be willing to live in an interior space that had no window? Or faced into an alley with a view of a brick wall?Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      View of a brick wall

      Right now my view is an assisted living facility across the street.Report

      • Avatar Rod says:

        Not sure if that was meant to refute my point, but I’m thinking more about the length of sightlines. My sense of it is that it relates to why we tend to like lawns and parks and has an evo-psych explanation (if you go for that sort of thing) harkening back to ougr genesis on the savannah and the need to spot prey and predators.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        Nope. Just an answer. I like windows for fresh air.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        I’d be fine with a place where my view was purchased on a timely basis. (cafes in other words). I might spend a lot of time outside, but… I need a home to sleep, basically.

        that assumes that the air outside isn’t going to set your carbon monoxide detector off.
        Pittsburgh has small windows (historically) for a reason.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      1. You’re right about this, and I don’t mention it enough. At the end of the day, increasing housing may have less of a releasing effect on prices and more an effect of simply allowing more people to live there. It depends on the circumstances, but that’s probably at least true in NYC and SF. To some extent, it’s an argument to stop having so many jobs in those places.

      3. I am actually pretty understanding of urban areas that want to raise the minimum wage. Even so, in tight housing markets, since people are bidding against one another for housing its effect on housing affordability can easily be overstated.

      4. I’d be interested in getting some verification for that statistic, should you come across that source again. I could see it if you count both roads and parking lots, though. I’m very much in favor of getting rid of parking requirements. The result of getting rid of either roads or parking lots is that I am less likely to spend time downtown if I can avoid it at all.

      5. An interior space without a window sounds absolutely heavenly. I recognize that I am in the minority here, though. McArdle wrote a while back about how depressing it is to live in a place where you almost never see sunlight out the window. My thought was “That’s the price you pay for living in a place like Manhattan (which I think she was referring to)” though in retrospect I was perhaps excessively unsympathetic. I just have a problem with it when that attitude is used to keep people out. Anyhow, the sort of density we’re talking about here would not be at all unusual in much of the world where they manage to pack even more people into tighter space (and not just by reducing roads). On the other hand, we’ve grown accustomed to not living that way and such things are really hard to change.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        Dude, if McMegan said it, then liberals need to jump in and point out how crazy she is, and how any sane person knows that a windowless cell is the ideal human environment!Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I will confess that my initial response was almost as vitriolic as a lot of her critics are. It started with “Oh, get over yourself…” and went downhill from there with various class-based critiques. I calmed down, though, when I realized how odd I am in my aversion to light (I have a serious light-sensitivity) and that even if I found the complaint insufficient to keep buildings from being built, I could see how that would suck for people who like that giant ball of headache in the sky.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        From an urban policy point of view, upzoning seems to have few disadvantages if it creates enough housing supply that rent prices really do fall. What I’ve seen in Los Angeles suggests this is not the case, though; rents even on microapartments are astronomical.

        Hopefully in densified urban neighborhoods, lots of stuff is within walking distance. But it seems to me that densification requires a robust public transportation network because not everything is going to be within a walkable distance. Which means a substantial public underwriting of fares. That’s why folks like me who prefer suburban or exurban dwellings should care — we’re going to underwrite that public transportation network for microapartment types like you. Particularly for places where that transportation network needs development like Los Angeles or Houston, both a lot of dollars and a lot of intellectual labor needs to go in to making workable densified housing a reality.

        Maybe that’s in the public interest and I shouldn’t mind. Or maybe it’s short-sighted of me because it could turn out that your urban tax dollars are a bigger outflow from the city to my exurb than my converse situation. Either way, it’s important to realize that there is a significant ongoing public expense to this even if the development is all done privately.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        There is always the question of subsidy and who is subsidizing whom. It seems to me that the solution to this is to haggle over who pays for what, rather than haggling over whether upsizing should or shouldn’t be allowed to occur. Most likely, people living downtown are people who aren’t congesting the roads and wearing on them to the same degree. So I think it’s still a win.

        Ultimately, I’d prefer everyone pay their own freight as much as possible (gas taxes for drivers, fares for public transportation) but there are limits to the degree that you can do that without the taxes becoming too regressive. So… haggling. The results of which of course will have an effect on how much upzoning/density or sprawl will occur, but that’s unavoidable.

        What I mostly think we should avoid is a situation where “If you live in those accommodations, we will have to subsidize you, so we’re not going to let you do that” (regardless of whether “those accommodations” are suburban houses or twelfth floors).Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:


        IIRC people in NYC generally feel that they are the ones who get the short-shift on transportation budgets. Though there is always a strong feeling of downstate (NYC and inner-ring suburbs) v. rural and economically depressed upstate. Upstate has managed to maintain more representation than their numbers suggest they should have. So NYCers feel they are subsidizing upstate roads with poor subway service.

        You subsidies might not always be suburban to urban. They can often be urban economic engines subsidizing exurban and rural locations. Walnut Creek did not really develop until BART was created. Same with Lafayette and Orinda and other sections of East Bay. If BART extended to North Bay, I imagine that area would also be more developed.

        Some public transportation is more interesting than others. The Washington D.C. metro, Chicago L, Boston T, and maybe Philadelphia essentially serve as both subway and commuter rail for the suburbs.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe says:

      “Nobody really understands land issues like Georgists, ”

      They even use density as a pick up line for their future wives.Report

  9. Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

    New Dealer,

    A good post, and I am overwhelmingly in agreement. Just a few disconnected thoughts.

    1. It’s ok to be against, or at least wary of, upzoning. But it’s a bit incoherent to both oppose upzoning and complain about high housing costs.

    2. The solution is local decision-making, for all its warts. There’s a fine line–or maybe it’s actually a wide gray zone–between NIMBYism and “If I wanted to live in NY I wouldn’t have moved to SF/PDX/SEA.” We can never avoid the shading into some degree of NIMBYism, but the other is such a crucial argument, I think, that allowing local decision-makers to follow public opinion is still the best way to go. They just need to have some common sense about not making policies that actually destroy existing housing stock, and recognize the unavoidable trade-offs of any policies affecting the amount of future housing stock.

    3. I grew up in a farm town. Our house sat on three lots, and there are no houses in the whole town close enough together that you couldn’t fit at least two cars between them–and those are the more tightly spaced ones. To me, San Francisco was unbearably dense. How’s that for a difference in perspective between us? 😉 But that type of formative experience, I think, plays a big role in what type of environment we can adjust to as adults. In fact some people from towns like mine can’t wait to get out, and thrive in a more heavily urban environment. But not most of them. And I’ve met people who grew up in the city and were relieved to move to the quiet of a small town or the country. But not most of them. TyiReport

    • Avatar Damon says:

      I grew up in the empty west, a town of 9K, on an acre of land. I was surrounded by cattle ranches and wheat farmers. I’ve been living in the east coast for 30 years, in apartments, townhouses, single family houses, and college dorm rooms. I recently spent a week in Manhattan with a friend who had lived there for over ten hears. She showed me her old apts and guided me around the city. The ONLY thing that made it enjoyable was what we did-theatre, dining, and seeing the city through her eyes-otherwise, I’d have hated it. Hated the crowds, the noise, the dirt, the sirens, watching pedestrians almost get run over as an SUV slams into a cross walk against the light. She said her old apt was going for 3K / mth for a 1 bedroom, 4th floor walk up.

      It’s easy to live in density if you’re rich, you can buy space. Me, I like my townhouse with it’s space and quiet.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:


      1. I’m not opposed to upzoning. I would just do it in different areas usually than it is being done.

      2. My big issue with calling someone a NIMBY is that I think it is bad and lazy rhetoric. It signifies someone not wanting to deal with an opponents or critics arguments (valid or not) and just goes for the tarring brush. Does it exist? Sure. Is it always the case? No and just using is a sign of not wanting to grapple with anything and typical poor punditry.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        In true NIMBYism, the emphasis is on “my”: Not in my backyard. That is, a NIMBY approves of a measure in principle, but insists that it be implemented in such a way that the costs fall disproportionately on others. Opposing upzoning isn’t necessarily NIMBYism, but opposing upzoning because you live in a rent-controlled apartment and are insulated from the costs of restricted zoning regulations is.Report

      • I have no problem with allegations of NIMBYism as long as its part of a greater argument that supports the allegation.Report

    • Avatar Dan Miller says:

      @jm3z-aitch The problem with devolving to local decision-making is that many people affected by the decisions made aren’t represented, either practically (moving from rental unit to rental unit has deleterious impacts on voter turnout, especially in hyperlocal elections) or definitionally (there’s no way to adequately account for the interests of people who would like to live in a place, but can’t because it’s unaffordable due to excessive building regulation). You may be right that there’s no way around this problem, but some sort of thumb on the scales for increased density, or at least not allowing miniscule groups to endlessly tie up development, seems appropriate to me.Report

  10. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    Just a note on the loudest move to a new city anyone has ever undertaken: Sullivan will protest that this isn’t true, but if you follow his blogging of his move, you see that he was blatantly committed to finding NYC wanting from jump regardless of what he found there. He (somehow) had come to love D.C., and simply didn’t want to move – didn’t want to give up all the things he loved about it. And I completely get that: I’m in the midst of a residence period like that myself (though I was more committed to finding the good things about where I live, and have succeeded in doing so). It’s not that I have any problem with that being anyone’s attitude; I just don;t take at face value any assessment of living in a place that is clear coming from such a place of resistance. (To this day I’m not clear on exactly why the move to NYC happened for Sullivan – I think it had to do with joining the Daily Beast? Or maybe with his husband’s career. I’m not sure.)

    Anyway, on NYC, if there’s one thing you don’t move to New York hoping or expecting to find, it’s “whatever it is you like most about the place you’re moving from.” Yep, NYC is different. That said, as a mild midwesterner who made the leap (and moved away to stay near the person I love, with no desire to leave or feeling of having burned out on the place, though that could well have developed), I found New York to be remarkably livable, comfortable, and welcoming. Almost shockingly so. But here’s the key, which one that people who move in elite circles like Andrew Sullivan could never take to hear even if he received the advice: if you want to live a half-“normal”-feeling life in NYC, you can’t live in Manhattan (which to the wrong kind of person means not living in NYC), at least not most of it. Maybe you can’t even live in parts of Brooklyn anymore, either, I’m not sure. That’s all for the sleep-when-I-die types who (entirely validly) move to New York because it’s the epicenter of whatever profession they’re in and have no desire to ever have to spend a single second outside of that sphere of life if you don’t want to. But you sure as heck can live in Queens and feel like a semi-normal middle-class functionary who goes to work in Manhattan (or elsewhere) on one of the most comprehensive public transit systems in the world and comes home at night to place where you can leave “New York City” as such behind. And you *sure* as heck can get that by living on Staten Island (still NYC!). And then there’s Jersey City (yes, now we’re talking not actually NYC but you’re still basically there), etc. etc.

    I figured all that out living there for just two years, and after those two years (now themselves five years gone), I don’t even consider myself that much of a New York partisan. I do acknowledge the challenges that both Sullivan and New Dealer mention. But to me, New York is just kind of a flat-out brute fact of the world about which my opinion is pretty much irrelevant. New York is New York – it’s basically the most important place in the world, and if you’re there, it’s because you either have to be there or want to be there, or else whose time is it you think you’re wasting? Clearly only your own. And for all that bruteness and official indifference, as I say, I actually once I was there and making it happen (because I wanted to see what the deal was), I actually found it amazingly livable, and the people wonderfully welcoming.

    Andrew Sullivan clearly was not prepared to give NYC a real chance unless it somehow managed to pretty much exactly reconstruct his life in D.C. without a hitch in the first few months to a year of being there. Obviously, the result of that was going to be that he’d never give it a real chance to let him find a life there that worked for him, and that’s exactly what happened. NYC didn’t to provide Sully with what he could have reasonably wanted out of it; he just never really looked. He clearly never really had a good reason to be there, because if he did, he could have figured out a way to manage life in the city so that it wasn’t the city that was keeping him from being happy there. If he knew and we now know that’s he’s really only interested in being happy living in either D.C. or on Cape Cod, then clearly there’s no new information to be found in the fact that he wasn’t happy living in New York.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      This is a great comment. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        Lotta typos as usual – hopefully it reads okay.

        I didn’t really cash it out in terms of the actual topic – upzoning. Generally I’m in favor. My account of NYC, though, kind of suggests it’s a special case in that there’s kind of an ‘official’ district for intense upzoning in NYC – Manhattan – which allows a lot of the rest of the city to kind of hang around in the periphery, still being “really NYC,” but not having as much of the consequences of upzoning in their neighborhoods. I imagine in places where things are less officially demarcated the NIMBY reactions become a little easier to understand. That said, in both my hometown and my current city there are a lot of new condos and apartment buildings going up all the time, and I’m always excited to see it, because it both signals economic vitality and loosens tension in the housing market by adding comfortable new living spaces. I’m not at all clear what the basis would be for NIMBY reaction on my part. Admittedly, I haven’t lived in areas of those cities that have depressed rents, where new development could lead to a revitalization that would ultimately raise rents in that neighborhood (gentrification) even while easing rents from a city-wide perspective. I’m not sure how much that perspective underlays some of the disconnect that we’ve seen between New Dealer and James on this issue (as proxies for the broader policy perspectives they each more or less represent). Madison and Saint Paul are largely mixed enough economically that those concerns don’t come into play too much, meaning that housing development generally has the effect of easing rents overall. But in places like Chicago, New York, and perhaps(?) San Fran (not really sure), it seem to me that’s a legitimate reason that we’d see NIMBY: if the argument is that development will lead to lower rents overall, but it’ll raise them in a particular neighborhood at least over the short and medium term (I’m curious whether this is conceded on all sides, or if it’s thought to be an unsubstantiated fear by the pro-development side), then the argument to those people, who live there precisely because it’s an affordable enclave they’ve been able to find and make work for them, fails on its own terms for them.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      I believe Sullivan once mentioned that his husband was an actor so the move was for the hubby.

      There are parts of Manhattan that are quieter than others. I lived on 66th and 1st for about a year and the far East Side (and also West Side) can often be very quiet and residential. There is also Inwood way up at the tip of Manhattan.

      I also noted that some of his readers told him he should have moved to Brooklyn which is quickly becoming the new powercenter of NYC. It used to be the young 20-somethings would automatically move to Manhattan. Now I imagine many or most of them think Brooklyn is the place to go. If I ever moved back, I would probably return to Brooklyn.Report

    • Avatar j r says:

      Cosign MD.

      I was born and raised in New York, but have been in a self-imposed exile in DC for the past six years thanks to grad school and a job I like. I, however, am the exact opposite of Sullivan. I find myself actively disliking Babylon-on-the-Potomac more and more each week and longing for the sweet, if somewhat rough embrace, of the real Brooklyn. Maybe it is precisely because, as Sullian points out, DC is the home of politics and media, two things that I’ve grown to actively despise and New York is the home of finance and art and culture and all the other things that I actually care about.

      Putting all that aside, though, Michael Drew hits it on square on the head in calling out the bogus “New York isn’t livable” idea. New York City is a really big place. About 8 million people live within its five boroughs. If 8 million people live somewhere that you consider unlivable, that is a good sign that it’s you and not the place. And that’s fine, not everybody fits in every place.

      Just because Andrew Sullivan prefers DC should not be interpreted as some sort of incredibly meaningful insight into what is wrong with New York, even though there is plenty wrong with New York. Mostly what is wrong is that there are lots and lots of people coming to New York from other places with some movie/TV version of what city life is supposed to be. I was joking with my friends the other day about how every twenty-something that comes to New York is either living in Chelsea, the yuppies, or Williamsburg, the hipsters, to that point that Chelsea must extend to the East River, with everything between that and Montauk being considered Williamsburg.

      There are plenty of places in New York, and it’s directly-adjacent suburbs, that will accommodate a lifestyle not centered around trying to replicate Sex in the City or Girls or bro-inspired nights spent crushing Miller Lite on the Upper East Side. You just have to be willing to go and find them. Greater density would certainly help on the supply side, but a lot of this is simply a demand side phenomenon. The more livable a city gets (both in terms of price or lifestyle), the more people will want to come and live there. To find the right spot for yourself in New York requires that you prioritize and be willing to make some tradeoffs, which means that New York is exactly like every other place on this earth. For instance, you can have a lot of space in DC, for a not quite exorbitant price, with easy access to green spaces, but you have to put up with living in a place with expensive mediocre bars and restaurants full of people who are likely to ask you who you work for or who you voted for or want to talk your ear off about the three months they spent in Guate-Afri-Asia hugging brown children and padding their grad school resumes.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Manhattan is mostly not liveable anymore. At least, your quality of life for living there is going to really suck. That said, enough people still want to live there that the price won’t go down.

        DC, in any reasonable way, is unaffordable for me.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        If anything, his blogging on the subject should suggest he’s maybe kind of a shitty, high-maintencance spouse. I know that’s harsh, but can you imagine agreeing to move somewhere to help your partner move ahead in his career, a move that in basically no way hinders your own work, only to spend a year and a half publicly griping about every little disappointment on your massively popular blog? Jesus. I mean, I occasionally privately make clear to my Maggie that I both miss Madison and would move back to NYC in a heartbeat if she wanted to. But the idea of having a recurring feature on your blog repeatedly announcing to the world just how put-out you are by your husbandly sacrifice in moving? Gross. I guess every relationship has its own dynamics, but, man.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        I agree that every place has trade-offs. I’ve visited a lot of cities in the past few years and found myself making trade-off lists.

        San Francisco has great restaurants, bar, shopping, and culture but not quite to the levels of New York and I miss the 24 hour nature. I also miss seasons especially fall and even a bit of summer. I like the consistency in New York of being able to get up and now how to dress for the day without worrying about it getting hot and then cold again.

        Portland is very cheap and has a good food and music scene but the city is a bit too casual for me clothing wise and probably a bit too alt in terms of piercings and tattoos.

        Seattle is better than Portland but not quite San Francisco.

        I think I could live in Philly or Cambridge/Boston/Sommerville or all the cities mentioned above.

        My Brooklyn neighborhood was Boreum Hill/Carroll Gardens and I loved it. Though it is much more dense than San Francisco and was a but impersonal at times. But I had everything I needed in the neighborhood. It was really developed/gentrified when I lived there and is now even more so. The neighborhood now has a Barney’s!Report

  11. Avatar North says:

    Very interesting post ND but I’m having trouble nailing down your opposition to Matt Y’s policy preferences. Your criticism of New York’s housing conditions make sense to me. I’m not sure I’d enjoy being packed into small apartments in tall buildings. Where I’m having my disconnect is that it seems to me you’re equating this state of affairs in New York with being some kind of result of unrestrained market forces. This strikes me as odd since the near opposite is true. New York has been one of the most restricted building environments in the world; they’ve eased up a little from the heydays of rampant rent control but it remains largely a fact on the ground. What this means is that if you’re a developer; you’ve sacrificed a gold horned bull to every housing deity; you’ve bought off every housing czar; the stars align, the moon is in retrograde and you finally have your clear to build you’re going to build as many units as densely as you have reason to believe you can sell. Also, since this heavily regulated housing market has a supply crisis, you can sell every tiny micro closet you build because people have no other choices.
    It seems to me that easing barriers to building would make it more likely that a wider variety of housing, including the larger apartments you fancy, would be more likely to be built. With more housing options would come more pressure from the population for more comfortable housing. It’s certainly true that there is a physical limit to how many people can be practically housed in a given area but even NYC and its environs have significant room to go up.
    I guess my problem is that people try to have it both ways. I don’t think one can oppose upsizing and then turn around and complain about sprawl for instance. I don’t think one can oppose upsizing and plausibly call themselves environmentally conscious for another and I especially don’t think one can oppose upsizing and then worry about housing for the poor without being a rank hypocrite.
    The good news is that it feels like the pendulum is swinging the other way, happily, away from direct rent control and tight building restrictions (slowly) towards more permissive building postures often coupled with affordable housing mandates which strike me as at least potentially workable as opposed to the utter failure of rent control schemes.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      “I don’t think one can oppose upsizing and then turn around and complain about sprawl for instance. I don’t think one can oppose upsizing and plausibly call themselves environmentally conscious for another and I especially don’t think one can oppose upsizing and then worry about housing for the poor without being a rank hypocrite.”

      No, see, here’s where you’re wrong. there are other alternatives than what you’re talking about. We could invest in tertiary cities like Cleveland or Pittsburgh, or even MotorCity Michigan.

      We already have infrastructure there, and plenty of empty houses.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        Somehow you’d have to convince the poor people in NYC or SF to move to them my dear Kim.
        Also, implicity in such a suggestion, is the assumption that some cities simply are not for poor people. I suspect that would not go over well.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        We’re seeing a fundamental demographic shift here:
        the “richie riches” moving back to the cities, and the concommitant
        change of the poor moving to the inner-ring suburbs.

        I don’t see terribly much of a problem with that, personally, so long
        as the only tradeoff for being poor is spending a little more time on public transportation.

        What should and does trouble me is that this upzoning solution
        doesn’t fix the actual problem — which is social stratification.

        I’d give it more than even odds of making it worse, actually.Report

  12. Avatar Kazzy says:

    I am a former resident of Manhattan who loved it at the time but who would not love it now.

    First, let me confess that my experience was atypical. I had a studio apartment which I got for about 50-cents on the dollar as a function of being an independent school teacher. It was very small… probably about 200 square feet with a kitchenette housed inside a closet (the building itself was a converted hotel). But it had high ceilings and decent light (south facing into a courtyard) and felt larger than that. Plus, I lived alone on the UWS when I was 22/23 and paid only $1000/month including all utilities. Not too shabby.

    Now? Now I visit the city and enjoy it but am so quickly overwhelmed. Zazzy and I recently stayed at a hotel in the West Village, courtesy of my sisters. It was great but entirely too hip for us. Everything was so cool… and so obviously trying to be cool… and for $500/night for such a tiny room, it wasn’t us. And while we enjoyed wondering the quaint streets of the Meatpacking District, we were quickly turned off when the bar we were supposed to meet friends at didn’t even open until “maybe 10 o’clock” and only served vodka. Huh? The steaks we had at Old Homestead were fantastic but, good god, $12 for potatoes? And Chelsea Market continues to charm despite the onslaught of tourists and plethora of locals who clearly spent 45 minutes trying to achieve that perfect shlubby look.

    But, thing is, that works for a hell of a lot of people. And they should be free to pursue it. And those of us whom it does not work for should be free to pursue other options.

    But the issue of upzoning isn’t just one that pits middle-class people against millionaires and billionaires. It also has a very real effect on lower income people. When Manhattan prices out all but the uber wealthy, the regular wealthy move to Brooklyn. When this influx of wealth raises prices in Brooklyn, it pushes the former middle- and lower-class residents of Brooklyn further out. Eventually, they are displaced and/or ghettoized. And many of these people are integral to the city running as efficiently as it does. They work in those bodegas, operate the street carts, man the subways, drive the street cleaners, etc. So when we limit the ability to build up, those people are harmed.

    I think zoning restricts, in general, are legitimate. But they shouldn’t be as selective as they often seem to be. If high rises are okay for downtown, they ought to be okay for Williamsburg as well.

    If a town wants to bar such buildings town-wide, that’s fine with me.Report

  13. Avatar Kazzy says:

    It is also important to note that the geography of Manhattan limits the size of building. The fact that the skyscrapers are concentrated in mid-town and way downtown isn’t a coincidence or zoning regulation: the bedrock is too deep elsewhere to support very tall buildings. My stepfather is an environmental scientist in the city and explained it all to me. You could get higher buildings than currently exist in some sections, but you won’t be building 50-story buildings up and down the island.Report

    • Avatar North says:

      Granted Kazzy, but I think it goes without saying that without building restrictions and disincentives New York would be much much taller than it is today (even if the buildings weren’t all 50 stories).Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        Understood, North. But if people counter upzoning but saying that every building will rival the Freedom Tower, they’re wrong and/or dishonest.Report

    • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

      the bedrock is too deep elsewhere to support very tall buildings.

      I think you have that backwards. There’s insufficient bedrock elsewhere to support very tall buildings. From John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World:

      The Towers of midtown, as one might imagine, were emplaced in substantial rock…right at the surface…but in the region south of Thirtieth Street it began to fall away, and at Washington Square it descended abruptly. The whole saddle between midtown and Wall Street would be underwater, were it not filled with many tens of fathoms of glacial till. So there sat Greenwich Village, SoHo, Chinatown, on material that could not hold up a great deal more than a golf tee…In the Wall Street area the bedrock does not return to the surface, but it comes within forty feet and is accessible for the footings of the tallest things in town.


      • Avatar Glyph says:

        I think you are saying the same thing.

        substantial rock…right at the surface…but in the region south of Thirtieth Street it began to fall away, and at Washington Square it descended abruptly.

        “fall away/descended” = means the bedrock is deep underground = not near the surface to support tall buildings.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        Yeah, on re-read, I think you’re right, Glyph. Sorry, Kazzy. In my defense, I’m going through a bout of severe bronchitis. The pulmonologist today said my lung capacity was below 50% right now, so you can guess what that’s doing to the blood flow to my brain. 😉

        Anyway, it was a good excuse to quote McPhee, who’s always worth quoting.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:


        Feel better!!! Rest well!!!

        I did a grad school mid-term with a severe case of Bronchistis.

        I don’t think my cohort appreciated it very much.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        No worries, brother @jm3z-aitch . Good luck with the illness.Report

  14. Avatar Cascadian says:

    I think Vancouver has done a great job of encouraging upzoning while maintaining quality of life issues. This has mostly been done by wringing public space out of development companies.

    I’m not a fan of growth for growths sake. My political hero is Oregon’s Tom McCall who famously said,”Come visit us again and again. This is a state of excitement. But for heaven’s sake, don’t come here to live.” One of his cool creations was a Statewide land use plan that tried to keep growth within urban boundaries.

    Ultimately this becomes a question of sustainability. Is local farm land worth preserving? How much cultural change is desirable. It’s possible that a communities answers to some of these questions may lead to a higher cost of living but ultimately that’s their choice.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Suburbs are not fundamentally sustainable (at least beyond the inner ring).
      What do we do with all the basements when the houses are gone?Report