They Should Build More Housing Units in Brooklyn

My colleague Allison Benedikt has a problem:

With a third kid on the way and a 1,100 square foot, one-bathroom Brooklyn apartment, my husband and I talk a lot about when we’ll be able to afford a home to comfortably fit our family. I’m 35, he’s almost 40, and neither of us thinks we can even begin to contemplate shelling out for a mortgage or higher rent for another five years.

She wisely notes that this problem exists despite the fact that her family is solidly middle class:

Let me just stop you mid-eye-roll to confirm that yes: We are, by the standards of most Americans, rich. My husband and I both have steady jobs, make good salaries, and are lucky enough to be able to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world simply because we want to. As Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan wrote earlier this year,we can’t cry poor just because we don’t have a lot of money left after we’ve spent it all.

But she says maybe she and her husband did things wrong, and now she’s “wishing we had started popping out those kids, oh, say, five years earlier than we did, so that maybe, by 40, my bedroom and my sons’ bedroom wouldn’t be separated by a fake wall.”

Obviously, there’s a lot in the mix with the decision to have kids and when. But the underlying issue that I think people ought to be more curious about here is why is it so difficult for a well-educated, two-earner family who wants to live in Brooklyn to be able to afford a larger apartment? Is it because constructing a 2,500-square-foot apartment dwelling is prohibitively costly? That can’t be right, or why would there be such cheap houses available in Minneapolis? The problem would have to be that the land in Brooklyn is expensive because people like the unique amenities available there. And yet it’s clear that technologically speaking it would be feasible to build larger structures than those generally prevailing in Brooklyn—just look across the river to Manhattan—thus better matching the supply of Brooklyn housing with the evidently large level of demand that exists for it. 

A dwelling in a densely packed highly desirable urban environment would still be somewhat more expensive on a per-square-foot basis than a dwelling in a Midwest or Sunbelt suburb, since construction costs are an issue. And there are some hassle costs associated with dense living that offset some of the amenity value associated with large expensive cities, and in particular a lot of families with children will feel the overall mix is better elsewhere. But in principle a large home in a nice part of Brooklyn or D.C. or San Francisco shouldn’t be out of reach of typical middle-class professionals. America has the technical ability to construct the dwellings, and lord knows we have the unemployed construction workers to do the work. We don’t do it because of regulatory constraints that end up leaving people with these kind of dilemmas.