The biggest opponents of upzoning and zoning variances in New York are often local community groups. When developers request additional density, opposition typically comes from neighbors, and, less frequently, from citywide anti-gentrification or anti-development groups. Because the opposition is so localized, perhaps the right way to make it easier to build — and thereby reduce housing costs — is to reduce the degree of community empowerment, and make decisions at a higher level. In many other cities around the world, where decisions are made at a higher level and local communities are not empowered to veto new development, there is more housing production.
Because of the New York City’s vast size and population, municipal decisions could qualify as being at a high level. And yet, for land use decisions, while the state gives power to the municipality, the city defers to local council members and gives significant weight to advisory community boards. Those boards, appointed rather than elected, represent the most politically connected elements in their respective neighborhoods and are often intensely anti-development. Development can overcome the community board political morass only when it is a priority for the biggest and best-connected players, such as Columbia University. As a result, New York’s housing growth is slow, about 2.5 new units per 1,000 people in 2015.
There is no legal barrier to upzoning in New York, and there are a handful of exceptions to NIMBYism in New York that are instructive.
As Stephen Smith has explained in his writings about Hasidic urbanism, ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods tend to have lax zoning. The community demands upzoning, both in areas that are already ultra-Orthodox and in surrounding neighborhoods. Chinese immigrant communities tend to support new development as well, and as a result, around Flushing, the city increases allowable density after Asians have mostly replaced the older white population. But in other communities in the city, the local notables that comprise the community boards and neighborhood activists typically do not want upzoning.
In both high-birthrate Hasidic communities and overcrowded immigrant neighborhoods, people want development because it is for themselves and their children. Elsewhere, they do not want development, because it is for other people.
NIMBYism is almost always against development that’s perceived as benefiting outsiders. This is seen perhaps most strongly in American suburbs. In high-income areas, people often complain about property values. Westchester County has long fought fair housing laws, which would require wealthy municipalities to permit the construction of apartments. County Executive Rob Astorino, who lost his 2014 bid for governor, fought these laws out of concern that adding outsiders would depress the property values of those who voted for him. Fair housing laws were passed by a national civil rights coalition; the opposition to them comes from local groups asserting the right to local empowerment.
In low-income areas, opposition to new development takes the form of protests equating new development and gentrification. Most recently, Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez torpedoed a housing proposal in Inwood because activists in his neighborhood convinced him that a project with 50 percent of its units below market rate was not enough.
Another piece of evidence that local opposition kills development: sprawl. It’s not hard to build new suburban subdivisions in most of the United States, since there are few pre-existing residents to oppose them. The exceptions come from places that have been settled for a long time, such as Long Island, which over the last few decades has coalesced into tight-knit communities capable of opposing development.
In other words, NIMBYs will oppose development that benefits others, using either gentrification or lower property values as a rationale, depending on whether those “others” are richer or poorer.
The solution is to dilute the NIMBYs, by making decisions on development at a higher level than the individual neighborhood.
The two most relevant examples of places that have been successful at this are Canada and Japan. In Japan, zoning is a national rather than municipal law. It is quite lax, with more mixed uses and more tolerance of infill development than in the US. As a result, Tokyo Metropolis, consisting of the city proper and a small slice of the suburbs, produced 10.7 new housing starts per 1,000 people in 2014.
In Ontario, infill projects are not built as-of-right but require special approval. However, the process is controlled at the provincial rather than local level, and is permissive of high-rise projects in growth areas near subway stations. In the Toronto metropolitan area, the number of housing starts in 2015 and 2016 was about 6.5 to seven per 1,000 people. The rate in the city proper was about the same.
In the United States, there are no comparable examples of fast urban infill. But it’s possible to contrast, within the same region, big cities and fragmented suburbs. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the three counties with the hottest housing markets are San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara. Among those, San Mateo, with its fractured suburbs, had the lowest housing production in 2013. San Francisco and Santa Clara counties, which are somewhat fractured but dominated by San Jose, built 2.6 to 2.7 new housing units per 1,000 people, while San Mateo County built only 1.3. More recently, there has been acceleration in San Francisco, to about five starts per 1,000 people, but not in the suburbs. In San Francisco, decisions are made at the city level, which is more diverse than each Silicon Valley suburb, and is less likely to hold up development.
In Canada and Japan, NIMBYs may hate newcomers but are less empowered to stop developers from building apartments for them. Torontonians can look down on people from the rest of Canada, including the suburbs, industrial cities, and other other provinces. And in Tokyo, there are strong negative stereotypes attached to working-class industrial suburbs like Chiba and Saitama. But the government of Ontario answers not just to Torontonians but also to people from elsewhere in the province who would like to migrate to the city. Similarly, the government of Japan answers to more than just Tokyo.
In New York, zoning is already a municipal law. But the city chooses to devolve decisions to local council members and gives weight to community boards. The solution is to take the community boards out of the process, and give the city itself sole authority. The City Council should abolish the informal councilmanic privilege, in which members of the council have the final say over projects in their own districts. The general interest of the city is in upzoning, whereas individual communities have special interests in preventing development in their own neighborhoods.
New York may be smaller than Japan and Ontario, but it has a great deal of economic and ethnic diversity. The majority of the city has no reason to indulge the racism of neighborhoods attempting to fight housing for minorities; the majority of the city that is not in gentrification hotspots has no reason to indulge opposition to new condominiums. New York City could see lots of new housing, like Tokyo and Toronto, if it successfully removes power from local special interests that oppose development.