Does NYC Need Middle-Income Housing?

Seth Pinsky, who headed the NYCEDC under Mayor Bloomberg, says no, according to an article in this week’s Real Estate Weekly; and he hopes that Mayor de Blasio’s delayed affordable housing plan will focus mainly on creating units for low-income residents, who really have no market options remaining.

Pinsky’s is an interesting analysis. Basically, he seems to be saying that if the city builds a lot of middle-income housing, it may deflate the housing market pressures that are causing middle-class relocation — a phenomenon that should be sustained, because it improves the city’s marginal neighborhoods. In so doing, the city may also take some pressure off the poor, but only by leaving them in their current, decrepit units. If, on the other hand, the city builds a lot of low-income housing, then the very poor will get fresh new apartments, which will represent an improvement in their living standards; and the city’s middle-class will continue to respond to the increasing expense of prime locations by relocating in patterns that improve the city’s marginal neighborhoods. At first glance, the first approach sounds self-defeating, while the second approach sounds like a win-win.

The problem is that, historically, we’ve tried the second approach. We’ve had the experience of building large numbers of fresh, clean units for low-income residents, and this did not work out very well. The housing projects of the 1950s-70s enjoyed very short honeymoons before they turned into urban dystopias. Sociologists had a number of theories about what went wrong (e.g., the scale of the developments, their concentrations of poverty, elevation from the street, lack of ownership). We don’t really know what combination of factors went wrong in public housing, which is all the more reason to be cautious about making the same mistakes, again. As a counterpoint, middle-income housing in New York City (and elsewhere) has worked — whether in the form of Mitchell-Lama rental apartments, limited-equity cooperatives, or simply market-built modest housing units in suburban-zoned neighborhoods. In addition, middle-income New Yorkers are not without options. Accordingly, they have some leverage, and the city’s housing policies ought to acknowledge it.

I’m sympathetic to Pinsky’s analysis, and I do think middle-class housing pressures have had a beneficial effect on many of the city’s formerly marginal neighborhoods. And obviously — as challenging as it can be to live on a moderate income in greater New York — the situation is much more desperate for those who are genuinely poor. But Pinsky’s approach strikes me as too simple, for a couple of reasons. First, there’s no way that even the most ambitious middle-class housing proposal from City Hall would result in enough new units, in a short enough time, to deflate the market pressures that are reviving the neighborhoods on the frontiers of gentrification — or to move those frontiers deeper into the city’s fabric. Second, there’s scant evidence, in the history of urban planning, that public efforts to develop large numbers of new housing units, exclusively for the poor, can result in the kinds of neat-and-tidy improvements to urban poverty that proponents of such efforts would like to see. In fact, these efforts almost always backfire.

Ideally, the regulation of land use would be liberal enough for development to keep up with demand, across the various tranches of the city’s real estate market. But it’s not, and this means that additional efforts have to be made to advocate for the development types that are most needed. Today’s city needs more housing for everyone.

Warrior Cops … and Democracy?

The Wall Street Journal has a disturbing piece by Radley Balko about the rise of military tactics in domestic US policing. While one can clearly see the need for certain police officers to be trained in these approaches to handle the occasional life-threatening crisis — say, an unfolding attack or a deteriorating hostage situation — there’s something sick about a legal culture that just sort of decadently slouches toward the use of military tactics for serving warrants or securing evidence against civilians, as a matter of expedience, or to reinforce its own psychology of power. What’s worse is the intimidation factor that these practices imply toward the general public. If the legal system needs to increasingly engage in this sort of violence as a matter of course, that seems like prima facie evidence that the system is no longer governing by the kind of consent and consensus that Holmes identified as the prerequisite of a legitimate body of law. Scary.

Le Corbusier at MoMA

This exhibition looks like it might be really interesting. It runs through September 23rd at the Museum of Modern Art. I’ve never actually seen a museum-curated show about Le Corbusier’s work, but he deserves one. In addition to his architecture, the show focuses on Corbusier and landscape. This is an aspect of his work that I haven’t given much thought, and it’s definitely got me intrigued about the exhibition. To me, Corbusier has always been a sympathetic character, albeit an often hopeless product of his crazy, driven time. And I think it’s no accident that the more mundane aspects of Corbusier’s vision came to influence the soul-numbing housing projects and office buildings of the mid-20th century, because Corbusier himself seemed to have a blind spot about others’ individuality, and the settings whose builders superficially imitated Corbusier’s forms were usually those in which individuals were reduced to mere cogs in a wheel, or numerical problems to be solved. Corbusier’s work is so perfectly emblematic of that modern Western insanity that tries to standardize and quantify everything, without doing the required qualitative analysis first, to see whether doing so even makes sense.

Corbusierhaus, Berlin. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Corbusierhaus, Berlin. “A machine for living in.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Even though I’ve never seen a museum exhibit on his work, I did read a great book called Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century, by Robert Fishman. The author gives a fascinating account of Corbusier’s life and works, beginning with the architect’s childhood in the Swiss watchmaking town of La-Chaux-de-Fonds, on the western edge of the Alps, in the late 19th century, when the tradition of home-based artisans’ and craftsmen’s workshops was collapsing under insurmountable competition from heavy industry. Fishman then narrates Corbusier’s long career, in which he designed a world that increasingly seemed like a mechanized dystopia — where the most inherently human subjects of design, like homes and political buildings, were built in an industrial, impersonal, even brutal style. Of course, some of Corbusier’s designs were quite beautiful. But they were often pleasing in ways that allowed little room for the individual or the small community that used them to shape its own space; and they were attractive in ways that showed little concern for the human instinct for familiar forms. The ironies and psychological implications of Corbusier’s career are rich. Fishman’s is a great book — it also covers Ebenezer Howard and Frank Lloyd Wright — and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in the human imagination, and some of its blind spots, in the early 20th century.

Slouching Towards Dystopia

Ross Douthat has a piece about the Euro and its impact on poorer members of the Eurozone. And Governor Florio recently had a piece in NJ Spotlight expressing somewhat similar concerns about the socioeconomics of the United States. I don’t know how long free societies can treat so many of their own people so badly without imperiling the stability of their institutions. The West is really living through a great period of political malpractice, as the center-that-hangs-on circles its wagons around a system that is chronically failing its people. Much of the present leadership seems to have missed an important observation by Holmes, which applies as much to the integrity of institutions and property rights as it does to the treatment of criminals:

The first requirement of a sound body of law is, that it should correspond with the actual feelings and demands of the community, whether right or wrong.

I have a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach many days. How many others do?