The Nonexistent War Against Brownstones


    The economists have spoken. If you don’t allow your 125-year-old brownstone to be torn down to make room for high-rise apartments, then you hate America.

    Or that’s what you might think if you’d read recent stories by New York Magazine, WNYC, and The Real Deal. According to them, a new study by economists Chang-Tai Hsieh of University of Chicago and Enrico Moretti of University of California, Berkeley can be boiled down to one sentence: “Brownstones cost the economy billions.”

    The argument is that the entire U.S. economy would be 9.5 percent bigger if just three cities — New York, San Francisco, and San Jose — increased their housing stocks by knocking down their Brooklyn brownstones and historic San Francisco Victorians, and putting up high-rise condos in their places.

    Only that’s not at all what the study said.

    real-deal-facebook-repliesReplies to The Real Deal’s Facebook post

    A quick search of the actual study reveals that the authors never once mentioned brownstones, townhouses, row houses, or Victorians. Nor did they say anything about the evils of historic landmarking or preservation.

    Last summer, in fact, Emily Badger of The Washington Post spoke with one of the authors about their study, and this is what he had to say (emphasis added):

    “We’re not talking about doubling the size of New York overnight,” Moretti says. “We’re talking about increasing the size of New York over time, and increasing public services proportionally to population, so you’d have the same New York as now, but larger. This is very, very feasible, certainly in the context of the Bay Area. We’re not talking about building skyscrapers in the hills, or on green space, we’re talking about using developable land that’s already there, building on empty parking lots.

    Now, we’re fighting for audience just like every other publisher. (We just posted a list of Brooklyn’s best pastrami sandwiches, and put a picture of a dog on our Instagram account. CLICK ON IT.) So we can’t pretend to be shocked by this naked attempt to make an economic study on urban planning sexier by pretending it’s about bulldozing brownstones. And we all know how successive reblogging can distort facts faster than children playing the game “telephone.”


    pastrami-dog-clickbaitMmm… site traffic.

    The thing is, though, the findings of the study are very interesting, even without embellishment.

    Their argument is basically this. In economic powerhouse cities such as New York and San Francisco, the housing stock is limited. People who already live there have a tendency to fight against new development. Those who own property do so because they have a vested interest in keeping their property values high, and those who rent because they see newcomers as responsible for gentrification and skyrocketing rents. This in turn discourages a talented workforce from coming to the city, which affects the local and national economies on a grand scale.


    However, by increasing the housing stock — even by building luxury apartments — real estate prices stabilize, and local companies attract more talent while spending less. This increases the GDP and everyone sees a difference in their weekly paycheck.

    It’s less about bulldozing brownstones, and more about how that factory that’s being converted into luxury apartments could make it more affordable to live in a brownstone yourself. Fighting new development doesn’t just hurt the economy, they say. It also hurts you.

    san-francisco-painted-ladies-flickrWATCH OUT FOR BULLDOZERS EVERYONE!!! Photo by David McSpadden via Flickr 

    The authors of the study suggest that one way to remedy this housing shortage would be for “the federal government to constrain U.S. municipalities’ ability to set land use regulations.” This is obviously a pipe dream. (Or pipe nightmare, depending on your views on centralized government.) Somewhat more realistic is their recommendation to modernize public transportation systems, to effectively increase housing opportunities by making it easier for people to commute.

    Wherever you stand on this issue, rest assured that no one is talking about bulldozing Park Slope into a pile of rubble in the near future. No economists, anyway.


    Update: Richard Florida has weighed in on this, on The Atlantic’s CityLab blog, as has Timothy Lee on Vox.

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