A shift from subsidizing affordable housing to downsizing apartment sizes would help house young workers and low-income seniors.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has called for the city to spend $41 billion over 10 years on affordable apartments while asking developers to kick in billions of dollars’ worth of such housing. But housing could be made less costly and more available without a dime of subsidy. How? By allowing smaller units.
Decades ago, in response to fears that some neighborhoods would become overcrowded slums reminiscent of the turn of the 19th century, the city established a 400-square-foot minimum dwelling size in most medium- and high-density residential zones. But quite a few New Yorkers live happily in units smaller than that, including at least one City Council member, Corey Johnson, whose flat in the Village is all of 319 square feet. With modern technology and design, builders are now providing even greater efficiency and comfort in small spaces.
The first step should be to eliminate the 400-square-foot minimum, which limits supply and raises costs in a housing market that is already tight and expensive, especially in Manhattan. As our Joe Anuta has reported, the Department of City Planning wants to do exactly that. Its proposal, part of a larger zoning reform now undergoing public review, should be approved.
Small apartments are particularly attractive to young people who want to move to the city or remain here for its culture, opportunities and dynamism—but certainly not for spacious dwellings. Likewise, low-income elderly people need housing to be affordable and convenient, not expansive. But they are subject to outdated housing regulations as well, including something called the density factor, which was designed for general-population buildings. Prompted by recommendations from nonprofit builders of senior housing, City Planning proposed to relax these rules, too. That’s a no-brainer.
City codes generally allow a building’s average unit size to be smaller as the zoning increases in density, but an inexplicable quirk in the rules paradoxically raises the minimum unit size in certain high-density zones near mass transit. The proposal would fix that.
The plan would allow developers to respond to demand among young professionals for independent housing. Such flexibility is far more sensible than repeatedly amending regulations as conditions and tastes change. On pricey blocks, builders will likely continue to chase the higher profits of sprawling apartments—the so-called luxury premium. But elsewhere we’d expect to see more small units, lowering housing costs for people who can’t or don’t want to pay for more space than they need. And the increase in overall supply will help all buyers.