Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A new report says city housing stock "has not kept pace with its growing population."
That's obviously no longer the case, with New York being one of the most popular living destinations in the country. But while the city's population has now far exceeded what it was in 1970, its median population density hasn't rebounded to the same extent. In fact, the average New Yorker actually lived in a denser neighborhood in 1970 than she lives in now, according to a new report by the NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.
Here's how the report sums up the legacy of New York's 1970 fiscal crisis:
While recent growth made slow changes to the geography of density, the rapid exits of the 1970s still leave their mark.
Today, New York is the most populous U.S. city, as well as the most densely packed. But it's also the only major city that's seen both a surge in population and a decrease in residential density, the report says. In 2010, the city had 53,400 people per square mile, compared with 57,900 people per square mile in 1970:
The study uses a population-weighted measure to analyze changes in density between 1970 and 2010. (This measure is a better way to "capture the density experienced by a typical New Yorker," as opposed to a raw density measure, write the authors.) During that period, new residents tended to funnel into lower- and moderate-density neighborhoods, such as midtown and Greenwich Village in Manhattan.
On the other hand, neighborhoods in the South Bronx, Central and East Harlem, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and North and Central Brooklyn lost density in that period. They didn't make up for the 1970 losses in population—partly because housing stock didn't rebound at the same rate as it did in other neighborhoods. In South Bronx and Central Harlem, for example, housing units still remain below 1970 levels, suggesting that the lack of affordable housing in these areas restricted the number of people moving into them. The report explains:
The city’s housing stock has not kept pace with its growing population, as geographic and regulatory constraints have made new construction challenging. As a result, housing has become increasingly unaffordable for many New Yorkers.
Take a look at this map showing how some New York City neighborhoods gained more density than others between 1970 to 2010:
Residential density is generally a good thing when coupled with mixed-use development. It can mean more walkability, more retail options, and often more accessible transit. In New York City, the report finds that higher density correlates with some of these benefits. For example, commuting times in the lowest-density neighborhoods were around 43 minutes between 2011 and 2013, whereas in high-density neighborhood residents got to work faster—in around 35 minutes.
At the same time, the report says there isn't strong evidence for some of the common complaints lodged against density—namely, that it's connected with higher crime rates or crowded and underperforming schools.
“Community residents often resist higher levels of density, voicing concerns about congestion and livability,” said Ingrid Gould Ellen, faculty director at the NYU Furman Center in a press release. “Yet, at least in 2014, greater density does not seem to negatively correlate with these indicators of New Yorkers’ quality of life.”
As more and more people move to New York, and the city unveils new housing policies (such as Mayor de Blasio's recent rezoning plan) to accommodate them, critics might want to keep in mind these density-related benefits, and think about who, currently, has more access to them.