“I loved my neighborhood… Now I can’t walk from 100th Street to Broadway because I cannot—I cannot—look at those buildings.”
We have reached peak privilege.
Other longtime denizens react to the erection of high-rise real estate developments on the Upper West Side: “You get the feeling of things closing in on you,” explains one Morningside Heights couple. On the other side of Broadway, the organizer of Harlem’s Anti-Gentrification Street Fair distributes literature warning that new construction “would replace the community’s culture with a ‘culture of money.’”
It would all sound so terribly tragic except that these attitudes—ranging from the superficial to the wistful to the cartoonishly Marxist—and the zoning regulation they inspire are responsible for the worst of what they purport to despise: the displacement of low-income and minority residents by gentrification. Gentrification, The Eye reports, has affected Morningside Heights more than almost anywhere else in New York. And as things stand, the problem will only worsen, with New York projected to hit a population of 9 million by 2040 but with nowhere for these new residents to live.
Columbia students, while nobly concerned about these changes, have failed to identify a major root of the problem. One Spec op-ed attributes gentrification to “stagnant wages, enormous wealth, and income inequality.” Another Spec op-ed, seeming to understand gentrification as merely the inexorable invasion of Ivy Leaguers and “white ladies pushing their babies in strollers,” ultimately suggests the best thing we can do to help is to “be more cognizant.” The University’s use of eminent domain is often cited, as well.
Of course, these are all contributing factors. But the issue we can most easily solve, omitted in all of these articles, lies in the artificial restriction of housing supply. New York zoning regulation limits, among other things, how high developers can build. Because of this, New York’s population density is, surprisingly, well below that of most of your average global cities like Barcelona and Buenos Aires and even sprawling Los Angeles. As housing demand has skyrocketed, housing supply has not been allowed to keep up, which as any Principles of Economics student can tell you, drives up prices.
Unfortunately, there is not all that much we can do about the demand—the people want what the people want, which will continue to transform the city irrespective of any government intervention. (Before anyone suggests rent control, a 1992 survey found that 93 percent of the American Economic Association agrees that “a ceiling on rents reduces the quality and quantity of housing.”) However, liberalizing zoning regulation can allow supply to finally begin to meet demand, ensuring that that inevitable change does not manifest itself only in painful price hikes. And so far, new development seems to have made a positive impact.
Mitigating what has seemed like an infinite inflationary ascent, rental prices actually fell by 2.7% in December. According to the Wall Street Journal, “The decline reflects a large supply of new apartments on the market.” The change is visibly apparent, too—over the past few years, City Hall has permitted skyscraper after skyscraper to shoot up on 57th Street. But this growth is not contained to only Midtown. The Eye recounted the construction of the twin high-rises Ariel West and Ariel East on 99th Street—and the resulting tantrums. Now our neighborhood is anticipating construction of the Vandewater, a new high-rise complex on 122nd Street, which will tower over nearly every other edifice in Morningside Heights.
But while more of this type of development is the antidote to the dearth of housing and, by extension, gentrification’s displacement effects, many community members remain intransigent. Robert Stern, chair of the Zoning Committee and a member of the executive board at the Morningside Heights Community Coalition told The Eye, “On the horizon I see a lot of problems that could take away the character of the neighborhood and displace people.” So in the interest of “sunlight, noise, [and] neighborhood ‘feel,’” the MHCC has successfully lobbied for “hard height caps.” (The Vandewater was only able to gain approval by purchasing the air rights of the neighboring Jewish Theological Seminary, which satisfies height limits with feet to spare—and sell.)
Many people, like Stern, see the erection of glass spires going hand in hand with gentrification. But it is necessary to extricate architectural gentrification from population gentrification, whose relationship is actually antagonistic. The more that New York’s buildings are allowed to climb higher and accommodate the growing population, the less the current population must adapt (read: relocate). And while one glossy tower alone might not affect the housing supply very much (and by virtue of its newness might actually charge higher rent than the building that previously stood in its place), building hundreds throughout Manhattan really would begin to correct the supply deficit—sure, nobody wants a new huge building in their own backyard, but the number of apartments in New York must rise somehow. Not to mention, if more construction were allowed in, say, Greenwich Village (where people want to live the most), the “gentrifiers,” as it were, would no longer need to push out as much into Harlem and Brooklyn in the first place.
It is true, new high-rises and other developments would detract from the suburban charm of neighborhoods like our own Morningside Heights, comprised mostly of pre-war buildings. But this cosmetic loss pales in comparison to the human costs borne by the most vulnerable members of our community. Indeed, to indulge one’s aesthetic sensibilities through government at the expense of people who certainly lack the same resources to influence government themselves constitutes true privilege and very nearly abuse.
The Anti-Gentrification Street Fair conferred several “Anti-Gentrification Ass-Kicking Awards” to those who helped preserve the “soul of Harlem.” The work those recipients did to combat things like predatory landlord practices really is crucial. But when we tackle zoning policy, we ought to ask: Does the soul of Harlem live in its architecture, or in its inhabitants? On zoning, Morningside Heights—and New York at large—faces two options: government meddling or a free-market approach. If Columbia students really wish to kick the ass of gentrification’s most painful consequences, the humanitarian choice is clear.
Joseph Siegel is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in philosophy. Right to the Core runs alternate Mondays. The Morningside Heights Community Coalition will be holding a town hall meeting on Feb. 7 to discuss rezoning. More info here.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.