New York City doesn’t have enough homes. The average New Yorker now spends 34 percent of pre-tax income on rent, up from just 20 percent in 1965. There are many reasons homes in the city are so expensive, but at the root of it all, even after the pandemic, is supply and demand: Insufficient housing in our desirable city means more competition — and therefore sky-high prices — for the few new homes that trickle onto the market.
Some New Yorkers harbor fantasies that instead of building more, we can meet our housing needs through more rent control, against the advice of most economists, or by banning pieds-à-terre or by converting all vacant office towers into residential buildings, despite the expense and complexity. Given the enormity of the crisis, such measures would all be drops in the bucket, leading many to worry that if we were to actually build the hundreds of thousands of homes New Yorkers need, we would end up transforming the city into an unrecognizable forest of skyscrapers.
This resistance to change is more than just the usual grumbling from opinionated New Yorkers; it has become a significant obstacle, and it threatens to stifle the vitality of this great city. As Binyamin Appelbaum of The Times argues in his analysis of New York’s housing crisis: “New York is not a great city because of its buildings. It is a great city because it provides people with the opportunity to build better lives.”
To do that, New York needs to build more housing, and it can. New York could add dwellings for well over a million people — homes most New Yorkers could afford — without substantially changing the look and feel of the city.
My architecture firm, Practice for Architecture and Urbanism, previously worked with Times Opinion to imagine the future of the city’s rail infrastructure and streets. This time, we took a fresh look at housing.
We found a way to add more than 500,000 homes — enough to house more than 1.3 million New Yorkers — without radically changing the character of the city’s neighborhoods or altering its historic districts.
The hypothetical buildings in our analysis would add 520,245 homes for New Yorkers. With that many new housing units, more than a million New Yorkers would have a roof over their head that they could afford, near transit and away from flood zones, all while maintaining the look and feel of the city.
Of course, adding apartment buildings would place more demand on our subways and schools in some neighborhoods. But the construction of over 520,000 homes would stimulate our economy; add people to our sidewalks, making them safer; and make the city more accessible to middle-class families — who are essential to the long-term health and prosperity of New York.
Several political, legal and economic impediments stand in the way of addressing New York City’s housing crisis. Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul have proposed ambitious plans to build hundreds of thousands of new housing units, but they have faced stiff opposition. Our City Council and State Legislature need to support a significant expansion of housing supply for the city or otherwise answer for our housing and homelessness crisis.
There are many reasons it is so difficult to build new housing in New York City — including zoning, the under-taxation of vacant and underutilized land, the continuing rise of construction costs, the elimination of important tax incentives, and intense and often misguided anti-development sentiments. These challenges can and should be addressed. But please, don’t let people tell you we can’t build the homes New Yorkers need because we’ve run out of room or because it would ruin the city’s character. We are, in fact, a very big apple.