What Should a City Do When the Rent Becomes Too High to Afford?

Apartments in Singapore.

Yesterday Ester wrote about median one-bedroom rents reaching highs of more than $4,000 in NYC, and earlier this month I linked to a story from Southern California Public Radio discussing the high rents in Los Angeles. As cities become wealthier and price out low-income workers and the middle- and creative classes, what can be done? Shaila Dewan examines this question in the It’s the Economy section of the Times Magazine:

The rules of the market say that in this situation, people should simply opt to live someplace cheaper. But in today’s economy, that’s not so simple. Detroit has very cheap housing, but unfortunately, all of it is in Detroit. Alternately, more desirable cities could build more housing to satisfy demand, but new developments don’t tend to have that effect.

Luxury towers are sprouting up, adding density to unlikely places, from the Brooklyn waterfront to San Francisco’s Mid-Market district. But adding inventory to the high end does nothing to help the middle — one of the many irritating peculiarities of the 21st-century boomtown housing market. Building new apartments can actually push rents higher, and amenities for the masses, like transportation and parks, may have the effect of pricing them out. Everyone wants to live in these places, so no one can afford to. What’s a global city to do?

Dewan points out that Singapore, a sovereign city-state with one of the highest per-capita incomes in the world, came up with a simple solution that likely wouldn’t fly in cities in the U.S.: build a bunch of uniform high-rise apartment buildings and force workers to move into them.

Today, cities that want to actually solve their housing problems will have to stomach similar forms of psychic dislocation, not necessarily for those being housed, but for those with strong ideas about what their city should look and feel like. Many of the things that we cherish most about urban living are the very things that make housing more expensive. San Francisco, certainly one of the world’s loveliest cities, has restrictions that keep much of residential construction under 40 feet.

Things like rent control and stabilization, housing vouchers for the poor, and requiring developers to set aside housing units for low-income families have helped some but done little to stop the rent from “being too damn high” as Jimmy McMillan has put it.

“It seems the only solution would be to level all of, say, North Brooklyn and put up monolithic prefab tower blocks,” Dewan writes. “But New Yorkers don’t want to live in Singapore. They want historic brownstones, landmark warehouses and waterfront views.”

It also seems to me that NYC can point to a time in its history when it put up monolithic prefab tower blocks and had low-income, middle- and creative class families move into them: They were the housing projects, which often had more than 1,000 units each. And you know how that turned out.

I also interviewed a 20-something Singaporean earlier this year and it seems like culturally, most young people live with their parents until they’re married, and the housing situation there isn’t exactly ideal. So maybe Singapore isn’t the answer to this.

Photo: Matthew Hine

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