To build more housing and bring down soaring rents, New York should copy New Jersey

Robert Nickelsberg/Getty ImagesConstruction work continues on a 15-story condominium building being built by Fortis Property Group in the landmarked Cobble Hill neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York on December 6, 2018.
  • Jersey City, right across the Hudson River from Manhattan, has made it admirably easy to build new housing.
  • The result: A construction boom, and apartments that are well-priced by New York-area standards.
  • You can get a new studio apartment in Jersey City with a three-stop subway commute to downtown Manhattan for less than $US1,300. Good luck finding that in Williamsburg.
  • What’s the secret? Building rules in Jersey City allow cheaper materials, smaller apartments, more building on a given amount of land, and no parking.
  • New York City can fight its affordability problems by adopting some of these practices.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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New York, like other dense coastal cities, has a housing supply problem. People want to create households here at a faster rate than we create homes, and that pushes prices up. Most people seem to recognise that part of the solution to that needs to be building more housing. And that leads to fights of what kinds of buildings should be built where, and how large they can be.

Sometimes neglected in the debate is the issue of how many homes can fit in a building of a given size and style. If we get better at getting more apartments into a given kind of building, that can get us more housing at less cost and less disruption to the existing built environment.

Here is a building planned for construction at 177 Academy Street in the Journal Square section of Jersey City — right across the Hudson River from Manhattan — that does a great job of getting lots of apartments in a not-too-big building. Unfortunately, a lot of characteristics of this building would make it illegal to build in New York. What cost-reducing things are being done in Jersey City that can’t be done right across the river? Stephen Smith flags a few of them:

  • The average apartment in this building will be just 616 square feet. In New York, apartment buildings generally have to have an average unit size of at least 680 square feet. There is a lot of demand for studio apartments in New York, but our rules end up meaning the studios that do get built tend to be on the large, and therefore expensive, side. And some buildings in Jersey City have even smaller average unit sizes than this. (“This isn’t even the densest building on that street,” notes E.D. Gutierrez, the local resident who first shared the building plans to Twitter.) Some politicians in New York, including Brooklyn Borough President and mayoral candidate Eric Adams, have talked about relaxing zoning rules to allow the construction of micro-apartments on our side of the Hudson.
  • The building is about 50% larger than would typically be allowed on a lot of this size in New York City. As a result it is possible to fit 50 apartments in a six-story building on a 9,000 square foot (one-fifth of an acre) lot. This building is dense in the way Paris is dense — it’s not that tall, but it covers most of the lot it sits on, and it contains small apartments. People like Paris, right?
  • Oh, yes. The building covers more of the lot than would normally be allowed in New York City. That means there’s a smaller backyard and the rear windows will be closer to the neighbours than you might see with new New York construction. A trade-off, yes, but on the other hand it means you can add more homes without making the building taller.
  • The building will not have any structured parking. In most parts of New York City, a building like this would have to have at least one parking spot for every two apartments. It’s very expensive to build parking underground, but often that’s the only option available without using up space you’d otherwise use for the housing component of the development. Parking takes up a lot of space — you need 300 to 350 square feet of parking area for each garage parking space, meaning two parking spaces take up about the same amount of space as one apartment. And New York’s parking requirement is another factor that discourages building small, affordable apartments. If you break up a building into more, smaller apartments, you have to build more parking.
  • Buildings like these have wood frames.Wood-frame construction has been prohibited in most of New York City for over 100 years due to fire risk. (You can build out of wood in limited areas of Queens and Staten Island.) But fire-prevention techniques have improved in recent decades and it is now common in other large, dense cities to build mid-rise apartment complexes with wood frames. These sort of buildings are the ubiquitous six-story apartment complexes you tend to see in places like Los Angeles. New York City is an unusually dense place — though not that much denser than Jersey City, which has about 70% as many residents per square mile — and has reasons to be especially concerned about building fires, but building out of wood is cheaper and a rule against wood construction is another factor that raises costs (and prices) here.

Jersey City’s more flexible rules have a real impact: they cause developers to build more homes that are more affordable. In 2019, Jersey City permitted 6,365 new housing units — that is, 24 permits for new homes for every 1,000 existing residents of the city. In the same year, New York City permitted 26,762 new housing units, or just 3 for every 1,000 existing residents.

Greater supply helps keep prices in Jersey City more reasonable, but so does this set of rules that makes it possible to build apartments more cheaply: smaller, out of cheaper materials, and with no expensive mandate to build parking.

Because of all that, a small but brand-new studio, in an unsubsidized building with no maximum income, walking distance to the Journal Square PATH and just three subway stops to the World Trade Centre, can be had for less than $US1,300 per month. Good luck finding that in Williamsburg — as of December 10, StreetEasy doesn’t show a single Williamsburg apartment offered at less than $US1,499, and those $US1,499 apartments (all two of them) definitely aren’t new construction.

Given the demonstration of what is possible right across the river where the rules are relaxed, we should be figuring out what rules we can relax to emulate Jersey City, so we can kick start construction of more affordable homes and make a dent in our affordable housing problem.

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