NYC’s population grew during COVID — and it needs housing fast

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Not long ago, New York was thought to be a city in decline, and there was much hand-wringing about it.

The Census Bureau’s annual population estimates had New York City’s population peaking in 2016 at 8.47 million. By 2020, the bureau said, the city’s population had declined steadily, by about 220,000 people.

To informed observers, the Census Bureau’s population estimates seemed inconsistent with other data that came from government sources. New York City continued to gain jobs steadily — over 900,000 payroll jobs from 2010 to 2019 — before dropping in the pandemic-induced recession of 2020. Most city workers live in the city, and the city continued to add housing — albeit not enough. Rents and sales prices remained high, implying lots of housing demand. Surely the Census Bureau had the direction of population change wrong.

In fact, the bureau did get it wrong. Results from the 2020 Census confirmed that New York City’s population grew significantly in the decade up to 2020, by 629,000. The city’s population growth happened via natural increase, the excess of births over deaths. About the same number of people migrated to the city, either domestically or internationally, as left during the decade.

Mayor de Blasio has neglected the city by not responding to its growing population with enough affordable housing units like the Westbeth Artists Houses in the West Village (right).
Mayor de Blasio has neglected the city by not responding to its growing population with enough affordable housing units like the Westbeth Artists Houses in the West Village (right).
David McGlynn; Annie Wermiel/NY Post

Looking at the long-term trend, 2010-20 was the fourth consecutive decade of upward momentum in New York City’s population. At 8.8 million, it stands on the cusp of nine million, a threshold likely to be passed in 2030.

New Yorkers should celebrate this growth. The city has what every American city wants — a powerhouse economy based on finance and advanced business services that attracts ambitious strivers, both from other parts of the United States and from foreign countries. Added to that is the size and scale of the nation’s largest labor market, and all the amenities a great city can offer. Of course, the city grows its population each decade.

But with nine million looming, and ten million a distinct possibility, New York City faces challenges its elected officials have, so far, not risen to face. New York City does not produce the housing it needs to support its employment growth. Even in an economic boom period, the city issued building permits for slightly fewer new housing units in the 2011-20 decade (219,700) than it did in the 2001-10 decade (222,900) while its population grew much faster. Restrictive zoning is in large part the culprit — a
problem the city  inflicted on itself decades ago, and has yet to resolve.

Mayor Bill de Blasio took office promising to succeed where his predecessor Michael Bloomberg failed to alleviate the city’s chronic housing crisis. He has not succeeded, and many measures of housing inadequacy got worse in his tenure.

Jersey City has helped take some of NYC’s overflow population — but now NJ’s rail system is pushed to the brink.
Jersey City has helped take some of NYC’s overflow population — but now NJ’s rail system is pushed to the brink.
Christopher Sadowski

De Blasio based his housing policy on a combination of generous tax exemptions for new housing, vast subsidies for affordable housing and a requirement that new housing produced as a result of zoning changes include significant percentages of low-income units. The missing ingredient was support for private investment that didn’t need or want public subsidies.

Now the tax breaks, which expire in 2022,  may not be renewed. The city’s continued spending on housing depends on favorable post-pandemic finances, which are subject to many uncertainties.

The city’s failure to produce enough housing to meet demand is exacerbated by draconian rent regulations enacted by the state legislature in 2019. The legislature’s clear priority was to ensure that rent-stabilized tenants in New York City would never need to move because the rent had risen beyond their means. What the legislature did not think about was the households who do want to move to another apartment — because they have taken jobs in the city, or gotten married, or had a child and need more space. Those people are forced to bid against one another for an ever-shrinking number of units.

While many state legislatures have taken on the role of overriding local zoning laws so that housing needs can be met, New York’s legislature has thus far failed to take any such action.

Incoming Mayor Eric Adams and the state's new Governor Kathy Hochul have the chance to fix the city’s past mistakes on housing — but will they succeed?
Incoming Mayor Eric Adams and the state’s new Governor Kathy Hochul have the chance to fix the city’s past mistakes on housing — but will they succeed?
Alvin Baez; Reuters

The failures at the state and local level jeopardize New York City’s continued economic growth in the 2020s. The one saving grace is that the city has evolved a de facto sixth borough across the Hudson that its politicians do not control. Northern New Jersey municipalities did the city a considerable favor by accepting a disproportionate share of the region’s population and housing growth from 2010 to 2020, led by Jersey City, which grew its population by 44,900.

Unfortunately, before the pandemic, and likely with recovery, the growth in New Jersey commuters overwhelmed the antiquated and inadequate trans-Hudson transportation network. At best, relief is far off.

New York City’s next mayor Eric Adams and the state’s new Governor Kathy Hochul, along with the City Council and the state legislature, need to respond to the challenges highlighted by the Census with better policies. New York City has long been, and should be, a magnet for the nation’s, and the world’s most ambitious and talented people. For that to happen, government must not only care about the people already here, but those who will come in the next decade — and the decades beyond.

Eric Kober is a retired New York City planner, and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His latest report on the city’s population growth can be read here.



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