An article on the 'why' of gentrification: insufficient new housing vs. demand — Brooklynian

An article on the 'why' of gentrification: insufficient new housing vs. demand

I really liked this article, which attempts to explain why gentrification is happening so quickly in Brooklyn, as opposed to other articles which are mostly about its effects.

The short version is:

Nowhere is this gap between supply and demand more apparent than in the northern Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Bushwick. These neighborhoods are more or less frozen in 1961, when the city's zoning code restricted density and required parking in new construction. The vast majority of Williamsburg is zoned for row home-sized buildings. The city's ubiquitous six-story tenement would be illegal to build in most of Williamsburg today, as would many of the neighborhood's coveted loft buildings.

New construction sprinkled around the neighborhood stands out, but when you take into account the high ceilings, setbacks on upper floors and space that must be dedicated to parking according to the zoning code, the newest buildings almost never contain more living space than those built a century ago.

New York City's population was mostly flat or declining from 1950 onward, but surpassed its previous peak in the late 1990s due to the great employment opportunities here combined with an improved quality of life (excepting the high rents, of course). Current zoning means it is difficult to add more housing units in existing neighborhoods, and there's very little undeveloped land and similarly tight zoning in the suburbs. Thus, if housing prices in NYC are ever to stay steady or decline, rather than race upward to displace people, the city needs to allow more dense construction in existing neighborhoods, especially around the rail infrastructure that's already in place to support high density. Hopefully that happens, so people aren't forced out of their neighborhoods.


  • I saw that piece too - very interesting. This quote also caught my eye:

    "More importantly, northern Brooklyn is underdeveloped. The hip neighborhoods around the L train, the main vehicle of gentrification in Williamsburg and Bushwick, are less than half as dense as Brooklyn neighborhoods like Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy."

    I don't typically think of CH as "dense" compared to Williamsburg, but it does appear on the census that we've got more housing (and density does pick up close to transit hubs).

  • By focusing solely on NYC's zoning laws, the author fails to observe the enormity that a variety of factors play in creating a viciously expensive housing market. There are many factors: property taxes favoring expensive Manhattan Co-ops, rent control and rent stabilization, and school quality to name just a few.

    To make housing less expensive in New York, we have to look at all the factors influencing prices, and preventing development of new housing for any sector other than the luxury market. Personally, I think that the self-serving, gerrymandered City Council has blinkers on and refuses to accept any challenges to the orthodoxy of rent stabilization and preservation of the manufacturing base. Manufacturing is dying in well educated societies, which focus instead on services to add value to the manufactured goods fabricated elsewhere. Manufacturing goes to the countries where labor is cheap - China, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh. Rent stabilization enables those who signed leases a tenancy for life, but their apartment will be frozen in time when they sign their first lease, forget about a new bathroom or an updated kitchen. I've lived in a rent stabilized apartment - it was a slum.

    There are plenty of examples around the world where we can see markets working better, there are plenty of rental vacancies at all levels of the market - which is an indicator of a fair market. The laws offer consumer protections to tenants, and property rights for landlords. What the rental laws don't offer is life tenure for tenants. There is also plenty of development in the housing market for low and middle income buyers.

    No one has ever been able to convince met that rent stabilization and restrictive zoning protects anyone other than the politicians that perpetuate it. Neither has anyone been able to convince me that an unregulated market benefits anyone other than the property oligarchs. We need a free market, but we also need consumer protections and property owners rights.

  • this blog post challenges much of that atlantic cities article.

  • An interesting counterpoint, but a big part of their argument seems flawed, too. They point to housing starts in Williamsburg and critique census numbers for undercounting Brooklyn, both of which are fair, but even with new housing and conversions, gentrification tends, in most cases, to reduce density in neighborhoods (a single-family brownstone holds many fewer people than a four-flat brownstone, or a 10-room SRO, and the household sizes of wealthier arrivals tend to be smaller than those who are displaced), a fact they're either overlooking or downplaying. The original article they cite for census undercounting ( actually suggests that much of the undercount happened in South Brooklyn, where larger families and immigrant communities went unnoticed by the census takers.

    They're right, though, that zoning is only part of the story. Williamsburg's waterfront is zoned for pretty massive residential, but that doesn't mean affordable units. Unless the incentives are place for developers to create affordable housing as opposed to high-end housing, all the upzoning in the world won't bring it about.

    However, I don't know that this is so much a "libertarian" argument (as the 11211 guys suggest) as a counterpoint to preservationism that protects the architectural character of a neighborhood while rendering the construction of affordable housing (or its preservation in the private market) nearly impossible. The Mt. Laurel Cases, across the Hudson, were all about this issue at a different scale (, which inclines me to think the Atlantic author has a point in this respect.

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