More NYC—a Progressive Campaign for Upzoning New York

A blog about business and economics.
Feb. 25 2014 9:23 AM

More NYC—a Progressive Campaign for Upzoning New York

468056295-one-world-trade-center-informally-called-freedom-tower
Manhattan could use more skyscrapers.

Photo by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

It doesn't exactly have cutting-edge Web design, but yesterday Nathan Newman unveiled a new organizing campaign he's calling More NYC—essentially an effort to build a progressive pro-development coalition for New York City.

The core of the idea is to zone for more residential density in key high-demand areas of Manhattan (that's the pro-development part) and then do a left-wing value recapture scheme. Essentially instead of the backdoor tax of an inclusionary zoning mandate where for every seven units of market rate (i.e., very expensive) housing you need to include two or three subsidized units, he wants to make developers simply pay a straightforward tax. Then that tax revenue will be used to directly finance the construction of affordable housing units in other lower-cost areas of the city and to finance public services. This is very much the economically sound take on things like IZ—better to do it directly as a fee and then use the money efficiently than to create a tangle of mandates.

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At any rate, it's a very interesting idea. Michael Bloomberg had a pro-development and pro-developer public image due to a handful of high-profile upzonings and his general rich guy-ness, but, as Sarah Laskow has recently written, the actual zoning record is much more complicated and vast swathes of the outer boroughs were actually downzoned during the Bloomberg administration.

Somewhat shockingly, she writes, "the city planning department doesn’t track, for instance, how much potential space was gained or lost" during rezonings so it's not actually possible to do a straightforward calculation of what the net impact of Bloomberg-era zoning was. The one thing we really can know for sure is that there are potentially huge amounts of economic surplus to be created through broad upzoning. The question is who can create the political coalition that would unlock that surplus, and what would its objectives be. One possibility would be a broadly libertarian or "pro-business" coalition, but another would be the coalition that Newman is proposing—one that would unite the interests of private-sector labor unions in the building trades with public-sector unions that need more tax revenue.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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