Multifamily development was up sharply in July. The National Association of Home Builders has the report. Multifamily is a construction sector that is often volatile from month to month — it had been down sharply in June. Still, it’s kind of remarkable that new apartment and condo construction turned an otherwise down month for housing starts into an up month. On a related point, the Times has a really detailed multimedia presentation today that models the massing and zoning changes in New York City during the Bloomberg years.
New multifamily development along the East River in Williamsburg.
Photo: Beyond My Ken, via Wikimedia Commons.
It’s fulfilling to see all of the new urbanism (literally) that’s happening now, especially in Williamsburg and Long Island City. More units equals a better response to market conditions — a good thing in a city where zoning laws and a scarcity of vacant land led to a chronic housing crisis for the working and middle classes. In addition to the potential relief (over time) to upward pressure on housing costs, the new development is also just really inspiring because of the scale of the transformations that are happening. There’s something satisfying about seeing the imprints of our own time being made on the fabric of the city.
Speaking of which, I had my first grand tour of the new Williamsburg about a month ago, from an old friend who now lives in a condo overlooking the East River on Kent Avenue. We went out to Radegast Hall and Brooklyn Bowl, and walked around the blocks near the waterfront. I’d been to Bedford Avenue a few times over the last decade, but I’d never really explored far beyond the subway station. There’s still some grittiness left in the area, but it’s amazing how thorough the changes to that neighborhood have been since the early 2000s. There has been a ton of new infill development in that part of Brooklyn since it was rezoned in 2005. At night, the streets are full of young people, heading out for drinks or dinner or a live show, or heading home with boyfriends and girlfriends. It’s really very alive, in a way that’s less corporate and managed than much of Manhattan now is. One important point about infrastructure, though: I don’t know how long that part of Brooklyn can keep mimicking the city proper without serious improvements to its sub-par subway service. The whole central part of the neighborhood seems to rely on the Bedford Avenue stop to get into the city. We ended the night around 11:45, and I wound up waiting for more than half an hour, in the Lorimer Street station, for an L train back to Manhattan.
In the short term, it seems like a given that changes like those underway in Williamsburg will have a net inequitable impact on certain residents at the neighborhood level — that is, luxury developments bring wealthier people into a previously undiscovered section, and drive up housing costs for the non-luxury surrounding units. Even with NYC rent regulations, this trend displaces less affluent residents over time — people whose deep reliance on local social bonds makes their displacement that much more painful. In the long term, though, it seems to me, housing costs are determined more regionally than they are at a granular level, and a larger housing stock across a region should temper the upward climb of prices in all but a few places within that region. Historically, since construction of the worst kind of tenements was outlawed, the US urban land market hasn’t produced much new housing for the poor; and it has only produced housing for the middle class sporadically, and with a lot of subsidies. But there are plenty of examples of housing whose occupants became less affluent as neighborhood footprints shifted and regional demand ebbed (e.g., in New York, the Upper West Side for much of the 20th century; and Harlem until even more recently); this is one way, historically, that very solid urban housing stocks have come into the possession of less affluent residents.
But as it becomes more popular, Williamsburg represents a trend in the opposite direction. That is to say, it’s a neighborhood whose fabric was largely shaped by the housing patterns of poor people, in the first place, in the era before comprehensive land use regulation took hold. Betty Smith described a scene from the 1912 neighborhood in the first chapter of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn:
The [tree] grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenement districts.
Basically, a lot of the 19th-century building stock in Williamsburg goes back to the general period that Smith described, when the neighborhood was a classic Victorian city slum. And yet, like the Lower East Side, the East End in London, and the nearer blocks of South Philadelphia, this dense, haphazardly built neighborhood is becoming increasingly affluent, and its gravity is now spawning the development of much more well-appointed new buildings, as well as widespread upgrades to the existing building stock, within its modest and crowded historical fabric.