As a boy growing up in New York City's Upper West Side and West Village neighborhoods in the '60s, I kept my lunch money in my shoe and witnessed a cops and robbers shootout at a Western Union on Broadway.
I returned to live in the Upper West Side four decades later. These days, the neighborhood is safer, sure, but it's absurdly expensive. The high cost of living means the area lacks a true middle class, which I was part of growing up. There is fleetingly little diversity, and none of the street energy I knew playing handball against the pre-war buildings when I was a kid.
Manhattan's Upper West Side: picturesque but increasingly out of reach. Flickr: Bosc d'Anjou
The neighborhood I called home is no longer a place where the son of a second-generation professor of American literature at the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy and a third-generation aspiring actress could live. And it's certainly not an affordable place for my aspiring-actress daughter and most other young people without a trust fund or relatively rare job in a high-wage industry.
New York's housing affordability problem has steadily crept outward from Manhattan to encompass the entire region. In fact, in a recent survey we conducted, 80 percent of those residing in the New York metro area said the high cost of housing was one of the area's most serious problems.
New York is not alone. It's among a growing number of economically powerful cities that face a crisis of affordability and inequality. This crisis threatens to choke off the very factors that drive these cities' success.
Cities thrive because diverse, ambitious, talented people intersect in ways that foster innovation and opportunity. City scholar Edward Glaeser puts this case in the strongest possible terms when he writes, "The strength that comes from human collaboration is the central truth behind civilization's success and the primary reason why cities exist."
If diverse, talented people cannot afford to come here or stay here to find opportunity and make their mark, cities like New York will lose their vital edge. That's why it's so important, from the perspective of both fairness and smart economics, to make sure great cities tackle the problem of housing affordability.
At the same time, policies that affect our housing and our neighborhoods also affect our daily lives. The public has a personal stake in housing policy. It should also have a voice.
Over the next year, Public Agenda will conduct research to understand where the public stands in the search for bold solutions to housing affordability in New York. We will share these findings with policy and decision makers so they make choices grounded in and informed by the will of the public. And we will create materials that communities can use to better understand, discuss and act on the issue themselves.
To kick off this project, we hosted a panel discussion in early April with WNYC's Brian Lehrer, NYC Commissioner for Housing Preservation and Development Vicki Been, New York Community Trust's Patricia Swann and New York University's Steven Pedigo. You can read a recap of the event on our blog, where we'll also post regular updates about our progress.