It may seem like construction on new apartment buildings is never-ending in New York City—and indeed, more than 26,000 new rental units are due to be added to the housing stock this year. But that surge in development doesn’t necessarily reflect how easy it is to build in the five boroughs; and in fact, a Wall Street Journal report argues that New York City is one of the hardest places to build new housing in the U.S.
The WSJ worked with BuildZoom to analyze the number of new units added in metro areas around the country, and their findings were pretty “no duh” stuff: Areas where there’s a fair amount of urban sprawl—Atlanta, Dallas, Las Vegas—added more units, while cities like Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco added fewer units. (And Honolulu, but there’s the whole issue of space there.)
In New York City itself, BuildZoom drilled down to find the zip codes where it’s hardest to add new housing. According to its findings, Manhattan doesn’t figure into the equation at all—as Issi Romem, a BuildZoom analyst notes, “once density is accepted in an area it is easy to build more there”—while neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens dominate. Here’s the top five, with a few outside-of-NYC areas removed to keep our focus narrow:
- 11225 (Prospect Lefferts Gardens)
- 11104 (Sunnyside)
- 11218 (Kensington)
- 11105 (Astoria)
- 11223 (Gravesend/Sheepshead Bay)
According to the analysis, PLG added fewer than 500 units in the period between 2000 and 2015, but many of the other neighborhoods lost units—Sunnyside actually lost close to 500. (The fact that the analysis goes from 2000-2015 may skew things a bit, considering that Astoria, for example, has seen an influx of apartments in the past two years.)
So what do these all have in common, aside from being outside of Manhattan? For one, they’re neighborhoods where there’s a large concentration of existing single- or two-family homes compared to bigger apartment buildings. (See: Astoria, Kensington.)
And, perhaps more crucially, there are measures in place that prevent large-scale, dense development from taking root in some of these areas. Take Sunnyside, for example: It’s home to the Sunnyside Gardens Historic District, which occupies several blocks in the neighborhood. The area was also rezoned in 2011 to curb overdevelopment. (A subsequent effort last year to bring 200 affordable units to the neighborhood through rezoning failed.)
Similar efforts are now playing out in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, where community members have pushed back against tall buildings in the neighborhood. One such development, the rental building at 626 Flatbush Avenue (aka the Parkline), drew the ire of locals; they’ve since fought a developer’s efforts to rezone several blocks in nearby Crown Heights in order to build 16-story towers.
In his analysis, Romem notes an interesting trend: that neighborhoods where it’s toughest to build are often ones that are considered gentrifying, or are ones that could be considered “exclusive and wealthy low-density enclaves.” And again, some of the areas cited in his study fall into those categories; Astoria was named one of the city’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, according to a Furman Center study, while Sunnyside certainly falls into the exclusive low-density enclave category. (PLG too, to a lesser extent.)
The conflict between residents of these low-slung neighborhoods and developers who want to build there is likely to remain A Thing, but ultimately, Romem says, it comes at the detriment of those who need affordable housing. One way to improve that: to allow for greater density in neighborhoods where it’s currently not possible. “If you want to stunt this housing affordability crisis, you need to rewrite the rules,” he told the WSJ. “If you don’t open the floodgates, things won’t improve.”