By Josh Barro
I owe Lena Dunham an apology. On Tuesday, the Girls creator and star spoke at a fundraiser for Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer (D), who is running for comptroller. And Capital New York reporter Azi Paybarah tweeted the following:
Like a lot of other New York writers, I had sort of a field day with this. After all, Girls is to gentrification as Weeds is to weed. I should have waited for the tape. Dunham’s comments weren’t really about gentrification as such. They were about the fact that rising rents in New York are making the city increasingly unaffordable to lots of people, including low-paid creative workers. What Dunham worries “will seriously f*** our sh*t up” is that high rents will lead to “our generation’s Patti Smith moving to Tampa.” She’s right. I can’t argue with that.
The key question is what to do about the fact that the rent is too damn high. New York has gotten a lot more expensive over the last three decades because, as the city has gotten cleaner and safer and financial sector salaries have gotten higher, demand for housing has soared. The key to bringing down prices is to boost supply. That means letting people build. But too often, New York won’t allow that. Take, for example, the proliferation of landmarked historic districts in Manhattan. As economist Ed Glaeser noted in 2010, 16% of non-park land in Manhattan below 96th Street is now covered by such designations, in which new development must be approved by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. That restriction limits the supply of new housing and drives up prices, making Manhattan less affordable. In fact, the most desirable neighborhoods in Manhattan are actually losing housing stock.
During the 1990s, mostly-landmarked Census tracts in Manhattan below 96th Street lost an average of 94 housing units, while non-landmarked tracts gained an average of 89. And the differences in supply led to matching differences in price: from 1980 to 2002, home prices in landmarked areas rose by an extra $6,000 per year compared to non-landmarked areas. Of course, if you’re the sort of person who would have moved to the West Village were it not for home price inflation due to landmark designation, you’re probably not getting priced into Tampa. But you might end up moving to the Lower East Side, and someone who would live there if you hadn’t bid up the rent might move to Williamsburg, and he might drive some struggling artist out to Bushwick … who displaces someone who has to move to Tampa.
Policies that limit development in Manhattan are the reason that Girls is set in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and not in Manhattan—and they’re the reason that people less economically fortunate than the characters on Girls can’t even afford to live in Greenpoint. The irony here is that people lament how the city is changing and losing economic diversity, but policies designed to prevent change actually make the city less affordable. If you want lower rents and less gentrification—if the encroachment of bro-ish bars in Williamsburg alarms you—then you have to let developers build more luxury condos in the fancy Manhattan neighborhoods where rich people belong.
That is what will keep the next Patti Smith from moving to Tampa.