Sunday, November 29, 2015

Rezoning in New York, or, the Obamacare Trap

The central piece of Bill de Blasio's campaign for mayor of New York was a plan for affordable housing that would, as the Times put it, "turn back the tide of luxury apartments and sky-high rents." Now that plan has been formulated into a detailed rezoning initiative and sent out the the city's community zoning boards for discussion. Most are voting it down. Although this is a local issue, I think it points toward a major problem for our whole country.

De Blasio's plan actually has two parts:
One would require that new residential buildings in rezoned neighborhoods include apartments permanently set aside for tenants paying below-market rates. The other changes the rules on height and density so that more housing can be squeezed into the available space

The administration says that it’s impossible to halt market forces in a city where housing demand so grossly exceeds supply but that the market can be harnessed for good.
The reaction among renters?
Residents in the neighborhoods due for rezoning are wary, to say the least. A meeting of Community Board 11 in East Harlem this month was typical of gatherings across the boroughs. It began with a consultant’s slide show that seemed designed to stupefy anyone not steeped in the worlds of real estate and zoning. Except the room was full of renters, many of whom knew exactly what the man was talking about, or thought they did.

To many in East Harlem and other parts of the city where the working class and poor scrape by, construction means disruption, which inevitably means gentrification and dislocation. The rent always goes up, but they fear that the zoning changes will only make it rise faster and higher, inevitably making them exiles from their own city.
I think de Blasio's plan has fallen into what I am going to call the Obamacare trap. Like the Affordable Care Act, de Blasio's housing plan is formulated to be centrist and un-alarming, to "harness market forces" rather then overruling them, to give something to developers as well as renters, to find a balance between cruel libertarianism and stifling bureaucracy. As a result, nobody likes it. New York conservatives have been crowing about the mayor's defeats in the community boards, because they show that people simply don't trust complex, crazy-seeming schemes from the government. New York leftists are outraged that the plan gives away so much to developers and does so little to help poor renters; what they want is plain old-fashioned rent control.

Incremental moderation, accompanied by hundreds of pages of carefully balanced regulatory language, is just never going to excite very many people. Besides, nobody can really predict the effects of such a complex law. As I guess I would say that they will be positive but modest, in the sense that they will preserve affordable rents for a few thousand people and allow the development of a few tens of thousands of badly needed apartments, really not that much in a city of 8.4 million. But then maybe there are provisions in the fine print of the law that clever developers will turn into gentrifying tools.

De Blasio's people would probably respond that this is the best they can do, given political circumstances. This is unlikely to move angry leftists. Like Bernie Sanders' supporters who don't want to be told that single-payer healthcare is not politically possible, they want radical action. The US took radical steps in the past, so why can't it now? New York City used to have rigorous rent control, so why can't it have rent control again?

But the fact is that the country is very closely divided between liberals and conservatives, and 52% is just not enough to push through radical change. Until the voters shift and a real majority for radical action develops, centrist kluges are the best we are likely to see.

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