More Housing Units Lost to Mansions as New York City De-Densifies

Public Domain Submission to Landmarks Preservation Commission. Submission to Landmarks Preservation Commission

Whenever I read about the high cost of housing in New York City, and read about all of the campaigns to get rid of height limits and preservation rules that as Economist Ryan Avent wrote, stifle the construction of affordable housing:

Our thriving cities fall short of their potential because we constantly rein them in because we worry that urban growth will be unpleasant. The residents of America's productive cities fear change in their neighborhoods and fight growth. In doing so they make their cities more expensive and less accessible to people with middle incomes.
existing houses

Submission to Landmarks Preservation Commission /Public DomainOr Felix Salmon complaining about a city “stifled by nostalgists and Nimbys.” I wonder if they have a point, and then I see this: Three townhouses that might have had 10 or 15 apartments in them. Sure, it is the Upper East Side right off 5th and is pretty fancy turf, but Billionaire Roman Abramovich spent $78 million assembling them to convert into a single family house, renovation designed by Herzog & de Meuron. According to Curbed it comes complete with...

...a basement viewing room, an accessory kitchen in the cellar level, two full master bedroom bathrooms, a central atrium that will culminate in a courtyard on the second floor, two elevators, a dual-height "art room," a pool that nearly spans the width of the three townhouses, a sauna that appears to be camouflaged by some backyard landscaping, a rooftop kitchen enclosed in a greenhouse, a bidet in every full bathroom.
Rear elevation

Submission to Landmarks Preservation Commission /Public Domain

Abramovich apparently owns houses in London, Moscow, a chateau in France, an estate in Sussex, and a pad in Cap D’Antibes. If he divides his time equally among all of them, then the three consolidated New York townhouses are occupied by 1/6 of a person. Being a part time resident, he will not pay the hefty New York City income tax.

Now it is true that all the nostalgists prevented him from doing exactly what he wanted, and nobody could have come in and knocked the whole block down because it is designated historic, but still- all the advocates of supply and demand are saying nothing about this radical reduction of supply as buildings and apartments are consolidated like mad all over Manhattan and Brooklyn. (I have written about this before, a conversion of 8 units to one)


Submission to Landmarks Preservation Commission /Public Domain

There could be a simple law- Units cannot be consolidated unless they are replaced; there could be a fund that contributes units to affordable housing built by the city or other projects like Carmel Place that have some affordable and market units. But there isn’t. In fact the city apparently makes it harder to cut up a building into smaller units than it does to put it together. And this isn't happening just with the super-rich like Abramovich; in Brooklyn last week I was in two wonderful passive house projects that had previously been apartments. It's happening all over.

Given that the buildings that do get built are incredibly tall and incredibly expensive, I think it is clear the reason there is so little affordable housing in New York City has less to do with height limits and preservationists than it does with inequality. And until that is addressed, the situation is just going to get worse.