What YIMBYs Should Learn From New York’s Hasidic, Chinese, and Bangladeshi Enclaves

A street in Chinatown, New York.
No vacancy. Niels van Schaik/Flickr

In part because of restrictive land use laws, America is building fewer houses per capita than at any time since World War II. But not everyone wants their communities to keep from growing. In New York City, fast-growing ethnic enclaves offer an instructive counterexample. They are places where the housing shortage is acutely felt, exacerbated by poverty, high birth rates, and large household sizes. And they are places where people by and large want to make room for new neighbors.

John Mangin at the New York Department of City Planning has been studying the three ethnic communities in New York that are adding residents the fastest. In one of the world’s most expensive cities, how do they do it?

In a paper published this month in the Yale Law & Policy Review (it’s not a New York planning document), Mangin breaks down the housing strategies employed by the city’s Hasidic Jewish, Chinese, and Bangladeshi enclaves. For millennials working to expand the housing stock (the “YIMBY,” or “yes in my backyard” crowd), they offer lessons in pro-growth politics that work during a particular moment in a neighborhood’s history—before outsiders, trying to carve out space for their families in the neighborhood, turn into insiders who might fight to constrain it.

Mangin finds that these communities use three different strategies, which in total sum up the American housing experience. In Brookyn’s Hasidic Jewish communities, he describes a “voice” strategy—meaning that these enclaves, with their high rates of citizenship, have been able to exert electoral power to expand zoning laws to permit new housing. Construction in these areas is often geared explicitly toward Hasidic families—every new apartment has a deck (for Sukkot), furnished places have two refrigerators (Kosher), and no building is so high that it requires the use of the elevator (on the Sabbath, residents don’t use electric power)—to such an extent that fair housing groups sued the city after it rezoned a stretch of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (The suit was dismissed this summer.) The reason the “voice” strategy works is that these isolated communities know that development is being done for them, not for outsiders.

In Chinese neighborhoods, this strategy is harder to execute for a few reasons. New York’s Chinatowns have relatively low rates of citizenship (many Chinese immigrants in these enclaves are undocumented, which poses an additional challenge) and are often fragmented across cultural and linguistic lines that are less visible to outsiders, making Hasidic block-voting difficult. New York didn’t get its first Asian-American councilor until 2001, and Chinatown didn’t get a Chinese-American councilor until 2009.

So the Chinese in New York practice what Mangin calls an “exit” strategy—unable to create more space in the neighborhood, they find cheaper neighborhoods where they can develop satellite Chinatowns. These neighborhoods, linked to Manhattan’s Chinatown by informal transit networks, now dot Brooklyn and Queens. (Another result: Chinese-American anti-gentrification groups have begun to focus on defending the rights of current Manhattan Chinatown residents to stay, rather than focusing on making room for new ones.)

Of course Manhattan’s Chinatown also practices what Mangin calls the most basic of informal housing strategies: overcrowding. As early as the 1980s, Chinatown brokers were saying the neighborhood had no available apartments. The community’s expansion into the dwindling enclave of Little Italy has been halted by some of the steepest price increases in the United States—no neighborhood in New York has a greater difference between rents for existing residents (average $895) and those for new residents (average $1,713). As a result, apartments stuffed with multiple families or a rotating cast of working men are endemic.

The third strategy, called by Mangin the “underground” approach, is best exemplified by Bangladeshi and other South Asian neighborhoods in Queens. These are neighborhoods of single-family homes, where building apartment buildings is often illegal but garages and basements provide flexible space to create new, illegal units. In some cases, illegal rental income gets factored into the price of the house. The system is so widespread in the outer boroughs that Pratt estimates the city has more than 115,000 illegal “accessory dwelling units.”

With the help of the Chhaya Community Development Corporation, a local nonprofit that’s started a campaign to legalize basement units, the South Asian community is working on turning the “underground” approach into something close to “voice”—so that they aren’t forced to resign themselves to an “exit.”

It’s proof, Mangin writes, that communities will do what they can to grow, and a municipal reluctance to accommodate expanding communities will result in overcrowding well before it discourages future growth. It’s also evidence of a coalition-in-waiting for the YIMBY crowd looking to promote more building, one that would help counter the perception that YIMBY is a movement of young professionals backed by tech money, but that would also help both groups find room in the city. Just as pro-growth renters in California seeking to undo restrictive zoning laws would be wise to ally with minority fair-housing groups, pro-growth renters in cities should look to partner with those ethnic enclaves that are also chafing against a housing stock frozen in amber. In some cases, they are succeeding.

Correction, Sept. 25, 2018: This post originally misidentified the Yale Law & Policy Review as the Yale Law Review.