Michelle Higgins had a piece the other day about one of the everyday minor tragedies of American life in which “many Brooklynites, priced out of Williamsburg, Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens and Park Slope, are heading farther in” to neighborhoods where “the subway commute to Manhattan is longer, and organic markets and stylish boutiques are fewer.”
On its surface, that seems perverse. Has the recession really gotten so bad that droves of Brooklynites are being forced to accept reduced living standards in the form of longer commutes and reduced local retail amenities? The reason, of course, is price. For example, “Park Slope reached a new median high of $670,500 last year” to homebuyers who are pushing into less-desirable portions of the borough. They are “bringing a willingness and an ability to pay more for housing than the waves of residents who came before them,” meaning there will be secondary and tertiary waves of gentrification and displacement.
It’s a bit of a banal story, but I also wish it were one that people pondered a bit more. You might ask yourself, “Why don’t we all have a cheap electric car with a 300-mile range?” The answer is that, technologically speaking, we don’t know how to build a car with that range for a price that middle class families can afford.
But what about Park Slope? Do we lack the technological capacity to build more housing units there? No. We lack the legal authority to build tall enough buildings to accommodate the demand for Park Slope living. Thus we get gentrification instead of filtering. That means rich people move into poor people’s former homes rather than the other way around, and everyone ends up with longer commutes.
This is also a great example of how distributional issues do and don’t matter. Given a fixed supply of dwellings in Park Slope, the question of who gets them is extremely important. You want to be a have, not a have not, and if distribution didn’t matter the haves wouldn’t care about it so much. But it’s still possible to step back from the distributive conflict, and say that as long as we’re parceling out a fixed supply of Park Slope someone is going to get stuck with that longer subway ride. But if you can actually make more Park Slope—either by building more houses there or improving the quality of subway access to other parts of Brooklyn—then you’re making progress on a more fundamental level.