The whole point of Maximum New York is to radically increase human wealth and well-being by growing New York City through increased amounts of housing. So if I can’t convince you that (1) economic growth is a moral imperative, (2) growing NYC is vital for that end, and (3) housing is the principal way to grow the city, I’ve lost the game.
Therefore: here is a list of readings that make an excellent case for growth, NYC-growth, and housing-as-the-key-to-growth.
This list is divided into two parts. The first part has items that would take one-ish hours or less to read, and I recommend starting there. The second part is books, to be pursued at your more lengthy convenience.
Often advocacy groups have a “reading list” page that leaves the viewer with no idea of where to start, or why any particular item is actually important. If I fall into that trap, do send me a message.
- Part 1: Short Readings
- Part 2: Books
- One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger
- Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals
- Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier
- The Death and Life of Great American Cities
- What Makes New York City Run?
Part 1: Short Readings
“The Housing Theory of Everything” (2021, Works in Progress) by Sam Bowman & John Myers & Ben Southwood
This essay explains how housing is connected to almost every other civic issue humans deal with—the environment, health, personal finance, job selection, and more. If we can produce more housing where people want to live, we’ll be richer, happier, and healthier. If we can’t, we’ll be poorer, sadder, and sicklier. From the introduction:
“Try listing every problem the Western world has at the moment. Along with Covid, you might include slow growth, climate change, poor health, financial instability, economic inequality, and falling fertility. These longer-term trends contribute to a sense of malaise that many of us feel about our societies. They may seem loosely related, but there is one big thing that makes them all worse. That thing is a shortage of housing: too few homes being built where people want to live. And if we fix those shortages, we will help to solve many of the other, seemingly unrelated problems that we face as well.”
“Housing Constraints and Spatial Misallocation” (2019, American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics) by Chang-Tai Hsieh & Enrico Moretti
This is a technical economics paper, so there’s a bit of a learning curve if you’re not used to reading these. But it yields a stark, damning indictment of America’s inability to build housing, especially in high-demand areas like the Bay and NYC. The laws and individuals who actively block housing, and therefore block people from moving to higher-productivity areas, have made us all vastly poorer, and they will keep holding the entire country back until we change housing policy. From the paper’s abstract (emphasis added):
“We quantify the amount of spatial misallocation of labor across US cities and its aggregate costs. Misallocation arises because high productivity cities like New York and the San Francisco Bay Area have adopted stringent restrictions to new housing supply, effectively limiting the number of workers who have access to such high productivity. Using a spatial equilibrium model and data from 220 metropolitan areas we find that these constraints lowered aggregate US growth by 36 percent from 1964 to 2009.”
“Chapter 7: Curing Housing Scarcity” from Matt Yglesias’ One Billion Americans (2020)
This chapter surveys the diverse causes of America’s housing shortage and how they came to be. The two broad themes that I took from it are: (1) America is vast, and we can all live in different kinds of housing; there is no best way to live, and no one should force a certain kind of “ideal” housing everywhere, and (2) we know the solutions to the housing crisis. This is kind of good news—it isn’t a hard technical issue we have no idea how to solve. This is also kind of bad news—housing is a political issue that we, so far, can’t manage to solve.
“The key is that the technical aspects of fitting more people onto scarce land are not difficult—it’s a question of politics, and in particular the kinds of political entities that are empowered to make decisions” (202).
“Chapter 6: What’s So Great About Skyscrapers?” from Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City (2011)
This chapter focuses heavily on New York City and how its inability to build housing arose. From onerous permitting and zoning regulations to abused historic preservation laws, misguided people have been throttling NYC for a long time—and using many of the same arguments for more than a century now! Looking back, we can see that many of their arguments are as wrong then as they are now. From the chapter, emphasis added:
“New York’s upward trajectory was not without its detractors. In 1913, the distinguished chairman of the Fifth Avenue Commission, who was himself an architect, led a fight to ‘save Fifth Avenue from ruin.’ At the time, Fifth Avenue was still a street of stately mansions owned by Astors and Rockefellers. The antigrowth activists argued that unless heights were restricted to 125 feet or less, Fifth Avenue would become a canyon with ruinous results for property values, congestion, and the city as a whole. Similar arguments have been made by the enemies of change throughout history and into our time” (142).
Follow Jerusalem Demsas on Twitter and browse her wider online presence.
She writes for Vox, co-hosts Vox’s The Weeds politics/policy podcast, and much more. If you follow her on Twitter, she’ll surface a lot of other good housing policy people for you to follow via retweets and comments.
Part 2: Books
Matt Yglesias’ One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger (2020)
This book contends that substantially increasing America’s population would be great across almost every domain you can think of, and it discusses what’s keeping us from that ten-digit goal. Growing our high-productivity areas (like New York City) is one of the keys to one billion.
Tyler Cowen’s Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals (2018)
Cowen presents the moral case for growth, and (because I’m convinced by his reasoning) it strengthens my claim that growing NYC is not just good, it’s a moral imperative. From the book’s summary prior to its introduction:
“Growth is good. Through history, economic growth, in particular, has alleviated human misery, improved human happiness and opportunity, and lengthened human lives. Wealthier societies are more stable, offer better living standards, produce better medicines, and ensure greater autonomy, greater fulfillment, and more sources of fun. If we want to continue on our trend of growth, and the overwhelmingly positive outcomes for societies that come with it, every individual must become more concerned with the welfare of those around us. So how do we proceed?”
Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier (2011)
Glaeser explains how cities benefit humankind, how they’ve developed historically, how they can go wrong, and what we can do to make even better ones. This is especially important, because, as he says in the introduction:
“Two hundred forty-three million Americans crowd together in the 3 percent of the country that is urban” (1).
You might think of this book as the extended version of “The Housing Theory of Everything” above.
I picked some good lines from the book in this 40-tweet thread, if you want to get a quick survey.
Finally, a note on Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961).
This is the book on American urbanism, and it’s widely referenced in any circle that’s concerned with cities or housing.
However! I wouldn’t recommend it as a starting point if your goal is to get a handle on ideas about the nature of cities, growth, and housing. I would start with the books and articles mentioned above.
Why? Because Jacobs goes into extraordinary detail, block by block, analyzing the built environment of various cities, especially New York. If you haven’t lived in these cities or thought about the discrete elements of urbanism much before, it can be hard to keep track of the broader principles she’s exploring via such granularity. Also: she gets some important things wrong 😬 (like thinking high-rises and high density weren’t good for cities, preferring shorter buildings and medium density as a rule).
But this book is a gem, and well worth reading after you’ve gotten your feet wet. The rhetorical skill alone makes it a pure joy, and Jacobs has an irresistible personality that comes through clearly in her writing. Despite some things I think she got wrong, her approach to observing the complexity of a city is spot-on—from the introduction of Death and Life:
“So in this book we shall start, if only in a small way, adventuring in the real world, ourselves. The way to get at what goes on in the seemingly mysterious and perverse behavior of cities is, I think, to look closely, and with as little previous expectation as is possible, at the most ordinary scenes and events, and attempt to see what they mean and whether any threads of principle emerge among them” (13).
PS, a book on the actual NYC government, What Makes New York City Run? (2018).
This book is the best extant resource I could find that presents the NYC government in a simple, compact format. Although it leaves out a lot of details (it has no choice but to do so!), it will give you a good overview of how NYC works. Unfortunately, it was last updated in 2018, which means it’s already missing some important things! For example, NYC’s use of ranked choice voting in certain elections, which was approved in 2019.