Amazonian Rage in NYC

photo by Theeditor93

Vice quoted me in Amazon Is Bringing in Elite Lobbyists Amid Seething Rage Over HQ2. It opens,

Amazon might be too big to tax, but it’s not too big to freak out.

As the company tries to erect a massive headquarters in America’s largest city, it has come up against staunch opposition from residents, politicians and unions—all concerned the powerful monopoly will serve to inflate rent and strain local infrastructure, especially the housing supply and subway system. And while it might seem like a trillion-dollar company could easily quash protesting naysayers, turns out CEO Jeff Bezos might actually have good reason to try and win the haters over.

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported Amazon hired high-powered Democratic consulting firm SKD Knickerbocker, and a lobbying shop called Greenberg Traurig, to help smooth the way forward for its new HQ. While Amazon remained relatively tight-lipped, the company has sought to make inroads into affected communities—planning meetings with public-housing residents and reaching out to members of the city council. But some elected officials, including Senator Mike Gianaris and NYC Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, whose districts include the HQ’s proposed turf in Long Island City, have refused to serve on its advisory board, indicating instead a desire to kill the project entirely. Meanwhile, a Quinnipiac poll that dropped this week showed the majority of NYC residents backed the HQ2 plan, but activists groups and community board members have continued to organize, spurred on by Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—or at least her Twitter account.

In fact, the new Amazon influence operation, which emerged a few weeks after HQ2 plan was made official, suggested there were still concrete ways locals could thwart or at least put a dent in the company’s expansion scheme. If nothing else, an extremely-powerful company that has experience in the DC lobbying game is finding out it won’t get a new home in NYC without a fight that cuts at the core of the Democratic Party’s identity.

According to Richard Brodsky, a lawyer and veteran Democratic politician who served in the state assembly, if city officials or other activists took Amazon or the politicians who supported the plan to court, they could employ legislative subpoenas to demand more documentation of the project, and investigate compliance issues. Brodsky argued Amazon’s bid might provide the jobs promised, but that the company still had a long way to go in informing the public about how it would impact communities.

“Because the governor and the mayor have given this project to a set of soviet-style bureaucracies, there’s no one to ask the questions and no one to answer,” he told me, referring to the special fast-track process Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, both Democrats, have tapped to push through the Amazon deal. “Who the hell do you ask?”

Litigation is a fairly common way of handling disputes over projects like this in the city, according to David Reiss, a law professor and expert on community development at Brooklyn Law School. “Not being a shy bunch, New Yorkers often file lawsuits that try to set up procedural roadblocks to the project,” he told me via email. “These suits can slow down or even stop projects—and can give community members leverage with the City, State and project developers.” Even if it isn’t stopped altogether, legal action could help modify the project and fund parks, schools or transit.

Under the current approach from on high, however, the Amazon HQ also had to be approved by the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), comprised of gubernatorial appointees mostly made in consultation with the state legislature. This may prove to be among the only serious points of leverage Amazon opponents have to stall, or, in an extreme case, block the whole project. Even then, Brodsky said, the PACB was only technically supposed to oversee financial concerns, and not necessarily gauge a project’s social impact.

The city, for its part, appeared to largely be standing behind its original plan as it geared up for public hearings beginning next week. A spokesperson from the NYC Economic Development Corporation, the nonprofit development agency contracted by the city that helped broker the deal, told me Amazon was working to broker partnerships with affordable-housing developments and other community organizations, as well as provide concrete details about the 25,000 jobs promised in the company’s initial memo about the project.

The spokesperson also dismissed the idea that the new HQ would strain the city’s mess of a public transportation system. They argued the current flow of traffic on the subway routes amounted to Queens residents commuting to Manhattan for work, and that the “reverse commute” of Amazon employees coming to Long Island City would balance things in the other direction, not jam up trains in some new way. (It’s worth noting that Amazon employees were already reportedly looking for rental properties in Long Island City proper.)

Those resisting the headquarters, however, were unlikely to be swayed by more details, logistical help, or civic engagement on part of a brand many despised for what it represented in the annals of modern capitalism. Ocasio-Cortez, who has become a national spokesperson for anti-Bezos sentiment and a leading light of a left-wing insurgency in the Democratic Party, took to Twitter again on Tuesday: “Now what I DON’T want is for our public funds to be funding freebie helipads for Amazon + robber baron billionaires, all while NYCHA and public schools go underfunded & mom+pops get nowhere near that kind of a break,” she said, capturing criticism of some of the most comical parts of the Amazon deal as brokered by de Blasio and Cuomo.

Ocasio-Cortez’s Democratic Socialist bent may still be a nascent one, and her job in DC means local activist groups will have to lead the fight on the ground. (Some unions actually supported the deal, further exposing the internal Democratic Party divide at issue here.) At the same time, it’s important to look back to previous massive corporate deals for context on what’s going on. While Amazon, as a company, doesn’t have many contemporaries in the city trying to launch a new home at this scale, the way stadiums, universities and other hubs have been constructed in NYC in the past will help inform what does—and doesn’t—happen in Long Island City.

The EDC spokesperson, for example, pointed out that other big projects—such as Columbia University’s expansion and Atlantic Yards—were also achieved via a General Project Plan pushed through by the state instead of undergoing to the more public land review process at the city level. Using that fast-track in Amazon’s case has been a key flashpoint in the dispute over its origin, garnering frustration from Van Bramer and his colleagues. (Announcing a project before knowing the specific details, the EDC spokesperson insisted, was par for the course in cases like this one.)

This fast-tracking does happen often with larger projects, Reiss agreed, noting that land procedures can be bypassed when the state government is involved, leaving some feeling like their voices were ignored. “This can cut deeply because they are often the ones who are most affected by the negatives of the construction process and the changes that the project bring about in their communities,” he told me.

Noise Pollution and Property Values

photo by Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez

Realtor.com quoted me in What Is Noise Pollution and How Does It Affect Property Values? It opens,

When it comes to a home’s value (and your sanity), noise pollution can be a major downer. But what is noise pollution exactly? Most people have different definitions of what noise pollution actually is—anything from sirens to a barking dog, or the noise of traffic on the street outside.

While outside noise isn’t totally escapable (even the prairie has ambient noise), home buyers will want to be on the lookout for excessive noise pollution, because it could affect a property’s value. After all, you don’t want to live in (or have to eventually unload) a place that requires a lifetime supply of earplugs.

First, let’s define what noise pollution actually means.Re

What is noise pollution?

In defining noise pollution, there are several variables in the mix.

“Noise pollution is basically any noise that you don’t like, but I guess we would define it as noise that most people generally don’t like,” says Brooklyn Law School Professor David Reiss, research director for the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship. “When governments regulate noise, however, it is usually based on how loud a noise is.”

For example, Reiss explains that according to A Guide to New York City’s Noise Code, in that city, “Noise that exceeds the ambient sound level by more than 10 decibels (dB) as measured from 15 feet from the source as measured from inside any property or on a public street is prohibited.”

Of course, the ambient sound level in NYC is considerably louder than in a rural area.

How to measure noise pollution near a home

Although decibels are used to measure the intensity of a sound, there are more accurate ways to identify noise pollution around a particular house. When it comes to getting ballpark figures for typical noise levels, Tom Davies, Co-Founder and Manager of the property buying company Accelerate Homes, suggests that most buyers figure out the day-night average sound level (Ldn) or the day-evening-night average sound level (Lden), which are measurements that can help assess the impact that road, rail, air, and general industry has on the local population. Either of these measurements give a potential buyer a much more accurate assessment of overall noise pollution near their home. To measure these levels, get a regular decibel meter, take hourly readings, and plug those numbers into this online noise calculator.

You can also check this interactive national transportation map created by the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics to get a general idea of noise pollution levels created primarily by interstate highways and airports in your area. Just type in your address (or the address of any home you’re considering) and get a general reading. Red means loud—think vacuum cleaner (like 60dB-80 dB), and purple means even louder, like the constant sound of a garbage disposal (80 dB and up).

Identifying noise pollution culprits

It’s not always easy to figure out what’s making all the noise, but it is possible.

“While some of the main factors could be easily spotted—like the proximity of highways, stadiums, airports, train, and bus stations—other factors like specialized traffic (regular truck deliveries or rubbish removal), or the presence of neighbors with loud dogs, are far less likely to be spotted at first sight,” says Davies. The only way to get to the bottom of it is to talk to the neighbors.

Reiss also suggests taking it a step further.

“Visit at different times of the day. For example, if there is a bar across the street, drive by on a Saturday night,” he says. “Also, ask local government officials, like community board district managers, about noise complaints.” Basically, it’s up to you to do your due diligence on sound.

How noise pollution affects property prices

High noise levels don’t automatically correlate with lower prices, Reiss says. Some of the most expensive homes in New York City are located in midtown Manhattan, a busy area that’s home to the theater district, the tourist magnet Times Square, and many major corporate offices.

“But within a certain market, there will be those who value quietness and those who value being in the middle of the action,” he says.

To get a true reading on how noise pollution will affect the value of a property, “you would need to distinguish short-term noise—like a neighboring construction site—from permanent noise—like from a neighboring firehouse,” says Reiss.

Cities With the Worst Rent

photo by Alex Lozupone

Realtor.com quoted me in Cities With the Worst Rent: Is This How Much You’re Coughing Up? It opens,

Sure, rents are too dang high just about everywhere, but people living in Los Angeles really have a right to complain: New analysis by Forbes has found that this city tops its list of the Worst Cities for Renters in 2018.

To arrive at these depressing results, researchers delved into rental data and found that people in L.A. pay an average of $2,172 per month.

Granted, other cities have higher rents—like second and third on this list, San Francisco (at $3,288) and New York ($3,493)—but Los Angeles was still deemed the worst when you consider how this number fits into the bigger picture.

For one, Los Angeles households generally earn less compared with these other cities, pulling in a median $63,600 per year. So residents here end up funneling a full 41% of their income toward rent (versus San Franciscans’ 35%).

Manhattanites, meanwhile, fork over 52% of their income toward rent, but the saving grace here is that rents haven’t risen much—just 0.4% since last year. In Los Angeles, in that same time period, rent has shot up 5.7%.

So is this just a case of landlords greedily squeezing tenants just because they can? On the contrary, most experts say that these cities just aren’t building enough new housing to keep up with population growth.

“It is fundamentally a problem of supply and demand,” says David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. “Certain urban centers like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York are magnets for people and businesses. At the same time, restrictive local land use regulations keep new housing construction at very low levels. Unless those constraints are loosened, hot cities will face housing shortages and high rents no matter what affordable housing programs and rent regulation regimes are implemented to help ameliorate the situation.”

Micro Apartments and The Housing Crisis

photo by BalazsGlodi

The NYU Furman Center has posted 21st Century SROs: Can Small Housing Units Help Meet the Need for Affordable Housing in New York City? The policy brief opens,

Throughout much of the last century, single-room occupancy (SRO) housing was a commonly available type of low-rent housing in New York City, providing housing to people newly arrived in the city, low-income single New Yorkers, and people needing somewhere to live during life transitions. SRO units typically consisted of a private room with access to full bathroom and kitchen facilities that a renter shared with other building occupants. As the city fell onto hard times, so did SRO housing. During the second half of the last century, many SROs came to serve as housing of last resort, and policymakers enacted laws limiting their construction and discouraging the operation of SRO units. Many SROs were converted to other forms of housing, resulting in the loss of thousands of low-rent units in the city.

New research and analysis from the NYU Furman Center addresses the question of whether small housing units (self-contained micro units and efficiency units with shared facilities) can and should help meet the housing need previously served by SROs. In this policy brief, we present a summary of the paper, 21st Century SROs: Can Small Housing Units Help Meet the Need for Affordable Housing in New York City? We provide an overview of the potential demand for smaller, cheaper units, discuss the economics of building small units, analyze the main barriers to the creation of small units that exist in New York City, and suggest possible reforms that New York City can make to address these barriers. (1)

The policy brief makes a series of recommendations, including

  • reducing density limitations for micro units near transit hubs
  • permitting mixed-income and market-rate efficiency units
  • creating a government small unit program to promote the construction of micro apartments

There is no doubt that the lack of supply is a key driver of the affordable housing crisis across the country. Small units should be part of the response to that crisis, not just in New York City but in all high-cost cities.

Regulatory Approaches to Airbnb

photo by Open Grid Scheduler

Peter Coles et al. have posted Airbnb Usage Across New York City Neighborhoods: Geographic Patterns and Regulatory Implications to SSRN. Two of the co-authors are affiliated to Airbnb and the other three are affiliated to NYU. The paper states that “No consulting fees, research grants or other payments have been made by Airbnb to the NYU authors . . .” (1) The abstract reads,

This paper offers new empirical evidence about actual Airbnb usage patterns and how they vary across neighborhoods in New York City. We combine unique, census-tract level data from Airbnb with neighborhood asking rent data from Zillow and administrative, census, and social media data on neighborhoods. We find that as usage has grown over time, Airbnb listings have become more geographically dispersed, although centrality remains an important predictor of listing location. Neighborhoods with more modest median household incomes have also grown in popularity, and disproportionately feature “private room” listings (compared to “entire home” listings). We find that compared to long-term rentals, short-term rentals do not appear to be as profitable as many assume, and they have become relatively less profitable over our time period. Additionally, short-term rentals appear most profitable relative to long-term rentals in outlying, middle-income neighborhoods. Our findings contribute to an ongoing regulatory conversation catalyzed by the rapid growth in the short-term rental market, and we conclude by bringing an economic lens to varying approaches proposed to target and address externalities that may arise in this market.

I found the review alternative regulatory approaches to be particularly helpful:

City leaders around the world have adopted a wide range of approaches. We conclude by reviewing these alternative regulatory responses. We consider both citywide as well as neighborhood-specific responses, like those recently enacted in Portland, Maine or in New Orleans. A promising approach from an economic perspective is to impose fees that vary with intensity of usage. For instance, in Portland, Maine, short-term rental host fees increase with the number of units a given host seeks to register, and a recent bill from Representatives in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (H.3454) propose taxes that vary with the intensity of usage of individual units. Such varying fees may help discourage conversions of long-term rentals to short-term rentals and better internalize externalities that might rise with greater use. That said, overly-customized approaches may be difficult to administer. Regulatory complexity itself should also be a criterion in choosing policy responses. (2-3, citations omitted)

We are still a long ways off from knowing how the short-term rental market will be regulated once it fully matures, so work like this helps us see where we are so far.

Addressing NYC’s Affordable Housing Crisis

photo by Hromoslav

The NYC Rent Guidelines Board (of which I am a member) held a public hearing as part of its final vote on rent adjustments for the approximately one million dwelling units subject to the Rent Stabilization Law in New York City. My fellow board member, Hilary Botein, and I submitted the following joint statement at the hearing (also available on SSRN and BePress):

The Rent Guidelines Board determines rent increases for New York City’s 1 million rent-stabilized apartments. We must weigh the economic conditions of the residential real estate industry; current and projected cost of living; and other data made available to us. To make our decision, we reviewed reams of data and multiple analyses of those data. We also held five public hearings at which we heard hundreds of tenants speak, sing, chant, cry, and demonstrate. These hearings are among the only opportunities that tenants have to speak publicly about their housing situations, and they made clear the extremity of the housing crisis in the City, and that it will get worse without significant intervention.

Tenants who came to the RGB hearings are not a representative sample of rent-stabilized tenants in New York City. But they told us a lot about the state of housing in the City.  We felt that it was incumbent on us to respond to what we heard, even where it did not relate directly to the jurisdiction of the Board.

New York City cannot expect any meaningful housing assistance from the federal government in the near term. Our observations therefore focus on state and municipal actions that could address some of the issues that regularly cropped up at our hearings.

There is a desperate need for affordable housing that is pegged to residents’ incomes. Housing is deemed “affordable” when housing costs are 30 percent of a household’s income. There is no guarantee that rent stabilized housing remain affordable to a particular household, and there is no income eligibility for rent stabilized housing.  This aspect of rent regulation explains its durable political appeal, but makes it an imperfect vehicle for meeting the needs of low-income tenants.

Mayor de Blasio is protecting and developing hundreds of thousands of units of affordable housing through the Housing New York plan announced at the beginning of his term. More recently, his Administration announced a program to create 10,000 deeply affordable apartments and a new Elder Rent Assistance program.  But more can be done to help low-income tenants.

The Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) and Disability Rent Increase Exemption (DRIE) programs have proven their effectiveness in “freezing” the rents of more than 60,000 low and moderate income rent-stabilized households. The state should create and fund a similar program for low-income rent stabilized tenants who pay more than 30 percent of their incomes towards housing costs.

State laws governing rent stabilization must be amended. Three elements of the law particularly penalize low-income tenants in gentrifying neighborhoods, and were behind the most distressing tenant testimonies that we heard. They are not within the RGB’s purview, but change is critical if the law is to operate as it was intended to do. The state legislature has considered bills that would make the necessary changes. First, owners can charge tenants a “preferential” rent, which is lower than the legal registered rent for the apartment. Preferential rents are granted most often in neighborhoods where the rent that the market can bear is less than the legal rent. This sounds like a good option for both tenants and owners, and perhaps that was its original intention. But now, as neighborhoods gentrify and market rates increase, the prospect of increasing a preferential rent with little notice has become a threat to tenants’ abilities to stay in their apartments. Preferential rents should be restricted to the tenancy of a particular tenant, as was the law before a 2003 amendment. Owners would then be able to increase rents for those tenants no more than the percentages approved by the Board.

Second, owners can tack on a 20 percent “vacancy increase” every time an apartment turns over. This increase incentivizes harassment, and should be limited to situations of very long tenancies, to keep owners from actively seeking to keep tenancies short.

Third, owners making what is termed a Major Capital Improvement (MCI) – a new roof, windows, or a boiler, for example – can pass this expense on to tenants via a rent increase that continues in perpetuity, after the owner has recouped her or his expenses. We also heard allegations of sketchy capital improvement applications that were intended to increase rents without improving the conditions in the building. The state legislature should review how MCIs work in order to ensure that they are properly incentivizing landlords to invest in their buildings to the benefit of both owners and tenants.

New York City needs a repair program for broken gas lines. We heard from tenants who had not had gas in their apartments for more than a year. We understand that fixing gas lines is particularly complicated and expensive, and that gas leaks raise serious safety concerns, but it is unacceptable for families to go for more than a year without gas, and we are concerned about fire safety issues resulting from people using hot plates. The city needs to step in and make the repairs.

We have a housing crisis. Low income tenants, who live disproportionately in communities of color, experience this crisis most acutely. We will not find systemic solutions within the housing market. All solutions require a lot of money, and we cannot count on anything from the federal government. But it is imperative that our state and local governments act, or New York City’s already burgeoning shelter system will be forced to take in even more people. Since the 1970s, New York City has been a leader in committing public resources to housing its low income residents, and that legacy must continue.  The Rent Guidelines Board cannot solve the housing crisis, but other arms of the New York State and City government can work together to reduce its impacts on low-income households.

High Rents and Land Use Regulation

photo by cincy Project

The Federal Reserve’s Devin Bunten has posted Is the Rent Too High? Aggregate Implications of Local Land-Use Regulation. It is a technical paper about an important subject. It has implications for those who are concerned about the lack of affordable housing in high-growth areas. The abstract reads,

Highly productive U.S. cities are characterized by high housing prices, low housing stock growth, and restrictive land-use regulations (e.g., San Francisco). While new residents would benefit from housing stock growth in cities with highly productive firms, existing residents justify strict local land-use regulations on the grounds of congestion and other costs of further development. This paper assesses the welfare implications of these local regulations for income, congestion, and urban sprawl within a general-equilibrium model with endogenous regulation. In the model, households choose from locations that vary exogenously by productivity and endogenously according to local externalities of congestion and sharing. Existing residents address these externalities by voting for regulations that limit local housing density. In equilibrium, these regulations bind and house prices compensate for differences across locations. Relative to the planner’s optimum, the decentralized model generates spatial misallocation whereby high-productivity locations are settled at too-low densities. The model admits a straightforward calibration based on observed population density, expenditure shares on consumption and local services, and local incomes. Welfare and output would be 1.4% and 2.1% higher, respectively, under the planner’s allocation. Abolishing zoning regulations entirely would increase GDP by 6%, but lower welfare by 5.9% because of greater congestion.

The important sentence from the abstract is that “Welfare and output would be 1.4% and 2.1% higher, respectively, under the planner’s allocation.” Those are significant effects when we are talking about  real people and real places. The introduction provides a bit more context for the study:

Neighborhoods in productive, high-rent regions have very strict controls on housing development and very limited new housing construction. Home to Silicon Valley, the San Francisco Bay Area is the most productive and most expensive metropolitan region in the country, and yet new housing construction has been very slow, especially in contrast to less-productive large cities like Houston, Texas. The evidence suggests that this slow-growth environment results from locally determined regulatory constraints. Existing residents justify these constraints by appealing to the costs of new development, including increased vehicle traffic and other types of congestion, and claim that they see few, if any, of the benefits from new development. However, the effects of local regulation extend beyond the local regulating authorities: regions with highly regulated municipalities experience less-elastic housing supply. (2, footnotes omitted)

The bottom line, as far as I am concerned, is that localities that are attempting to deal with their affordable housing problems have to directly address how they go about their zoning. If the zoning does not support housing construction, then no amount of affordable housing incentives will address the demand for housing in high growth places like NYC and San Francisco.