Is There Really an Upside to Manhattan's Unaffordability?

A provocative argument on Bloomberg's legacy.

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Bill Keller has a column in the Sunday New York Times assessing Mayor Michael Bloomberg's legacy, mostly with approval. The former media mogul, Keller argues, has proven that CEOs can make good public stewards. City government, he suggests, has never been run as well, by quite so many competent (if not terribly diverse) data wonks. Under Bloomberg, the city weathered the recession, embraced alternative transportation, and expanded its parks and its ambition.

Undoubtedly, a lot of people will spend the next several months (and longer) parsing the legacy of the man who believed he was so uniquely qualified for this job that he had the city's term limits amended so that he could run for a third time. And on some points (Bloomberg's support of stop-and-frisk), there will be much more disagreement than others (his smoking ban, now widely embraced). But one argument in particular from Keller's column certainly deserves a wider airing, in New York City and any city where it feels like even the middle class has been priced out to the perimeter:

Critics complain that Bloomberg gilded Manhattan to the point where nobody but the affluent can afford it, that the service class was pushed to remote neighborhoods with laborious commutes. There is some truth in that. But as Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy at New York University who has been an informal adviser to the mayor, points out, “New York City needs wealthy people, because we tax them.” In turn, the people priced out of Manhattan (including young creative types) have brought new life — and new amenities — to parts of Brooklyn and Queens. Of eight million New Yorkers, Moss said, “1.6 million people live on Manhattan. The rest live elsewhere. And we’ve made elsewhere more attractive.”

This notion that Manhattan's unaffordability has been good for other parts of town probably won't sway many of these same critics. Of course, the dominoes don't stop falling in Brooklyn and Queens when once-neglected areas become more desirable in a rippling pattern out from Manhattan. From there, people newly priced out of Brooklyn and Queens simply move even farther away. They are seldom the beneficiaries of making "elsewhere more attractive." And the problem is particularly acute in a place like New York where the benefits of a thriving city don't necessarily spread to the city's existing population; they lure new people in.

It is a positive development for New York that people with a choice of where to live now have more options that they would happily chose from, just as it's a promising sign in Washington, D.C., that the District's professionals no longer hole up in one quadrant of town. But the ultimate challenge – now for Bloomberg's successors – is how to expand the geography of desirable, healthy, safe neighborhoods while also expanding the population of locals who can afford to call those places home. Otherwise, you broaden the geography of the livable city for some people, while only further narrowing it for families who had few options to begin with.

And in New York, while the "attractive" parts of town have grown, but so too lately has the share of the city's population living in poverty.

Top image: Alinute Silzeviciute/Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.