Monday, October 20, 2014

Friday, October 17, 2014

Waterbound leaf peepers

I was surprised to see a large (for these parts) passenger ship docked in Catskill this week. The American Star, operated by American Cruise Lines, hosts two weeklong scenery tours between Manhattan and Troy. Stops are made in Sleepy Hollow, West Point, Poughkeepsie, Kingston, Catskill, and Albany to check out local attractions, including a land run over to Olana. Prices per person range from $3,440 to $5,955, which is shockingly expensive to me, but the leaf peepers on board appeared to be enjoying themselves.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Million dollar spaceship

A spaceship in the woods isn't everyone's taste, but this example near New Paltz, New York seems as well done as any you are likely to find. Currently used as a bed and breakfast, it's listed for sale by Douglas Elliman Real Estate at $1M.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Correction: How to make it more difficult for the poor to afford an apartment

Yesterday I reported that Hudson Common Council is weighing whether to establish minimum apartment sizes in the city. I erred in reporting that the minimum studio size would be 250 square feet. The correct minimum size proposed is 350 square feet.

While this alters some of the details of my post, my argument remains the same: the provision will make an entry-level apartment more expensive for some individuals on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. This runs counter to the goal expressed within the proposal, namely to ensure that adequate affordable housing is available in the city. Further, there remains a lack of objective evidence in support of the proposal. The Common Council should reject it.

The full text of the proposed law may be found here.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

How to make it more difficult for the poor to afford an apartment

Hudson's Common Council will soon vote on a proposal to establish minimum apartment sizes in the city. The proposed standards are 250 square feet for a studio and 500 square feet for a one-bedroom unit. The proposal presumably aims to protect citizens at the lower end of the rental market by guaranteeing more pleasant dwelling units and limiting exploitation by landlords. But on examination, the proposal does not appear to be rationally justified, self-consistent, or helpful to renters. If enacted, it likely will do more harm than good.

Screenshot from
Most people would agree that a larger apartment is better, all things being equal. But in order to turn such preferences into law, we need objective evidence that people's health and well-being are compromised by living in apartments smaller than the proposed standards. Proponents of the measure have not provided this. If there is any evidence to be found, or at least intuited, on the subject, it indicates that the proposal will threaten the well-being of some individuals on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder by increasing the cost of renting an entry-level apartment.

Let's look at an example. Recently, the owners of a building at 949-951 Columbia Street proposed creating two apartments within the existing building shell. One is to be a 420 square foot, one-bedroom unit. This unit might be realized before a city-wide minimum is passed, but the situation will come up again, so it's a worthy example. 420 square feet is small for a one-bedroom unit, smaller than many folks would be willing to live in. But a pleasant, livable unit this size can be realized if it has a proper layout. I once lived in such a unit for a year and a half.

An informal survey of Trulia indicates that the average apartment in Hudson rents for 1.00 to $1.50 per square foot per month. Using a mean of $1.25, the 420 square foot unit will cost $525 per month. If increased to the 500 square foot minimum, it would cost $625. That's $100 more per month, $1200 more per year that the renter would have to come up with. Keeping in mind that such a unit would attract renters near the bottom end of the rental market, this is $1200 that otherwise might be spent on getting to work or clothing a child. I cannot fathom how forcing such a compromise is a good idea in a city in which around one in four people live below the poverty line.

Of course, someone priced out of the one bedroom market could shop for a studio apartment. But this presumes a studio would suit a renter's needs or personal preferences. Further, the proposal is self-inconsistent: In setting a minimum size for a studio apartment, it acknowledges that a person can live, eat, and sleep in 250 square feet. Reasonably, then, a renter can conduct two of these activities, i.e., live and eat, in less space; let's call it 230 square feet. Why, then, does the proposal insist that a renter who wishes to sleep in a separate room rent 270 additional square feet of space? (I am not saying the bedroom will have to be 270 square feet, only that the apartment would have to be this much larger.)

Landlords could face compromises as well. Returning to our 420 square foot example, the owner would have to: 1.) find 80 more square feet within the building; 2.) build an 80 square foot addition; or 3.) remove some existing interior walls within the one bedroom apartment to turn it into a studio. I suspect that at some point in this deliberation, the owner will wonder why city government has inserted itself into the question of whether a renter has a wall between where he sleeps and where he eats.

The proposal for a minimum size apartment ordinance in Hudson is not rational, self-consistent, or beneficial to the public it aims to protect. The Common Council should reject it.
CORRECTION, 10/15/2014: The proposed minimum studio size is 350 square feet. Please see here.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Robinson Street, look out

Robinson Street in Hudson
"I think Hudson is turning a corner," a friend said at a party. "The people moving in here are really beginning to make a difference."

"I think Robinson is our next up and coming street," said an acquaintance at a community event. "It's the next street in Hudson to be discovered."

It's great to see houses and streets being improved, but statements such as these do not sit well with me. They are directed at the surface of things, and ignore the cultural realities taking place, or that could be taking place, beneath the surface renovation of bricks and mortar.

There are essentially two ways by which a depressed neighborhood may be physically improved. The first is the way to which we have become accustomed: people with wealth acquired elsewhere move into a neighborhood and fix it up. Stockbrokers and lawyers who make their living in Manhattan buy fixer-uppers in depressed areas of Brooklyn and Harlem. Wealthy high-tech workers from Google and Yahoo buy condos and buildings in overlooked neighborhoods of San Francisco, twenty-five miles north of their work, and motivate their improvement. State government workers in Albany purchase and renovate inexpensive housing in Hudson, while continuing to commute to work in the state capital. Or as has become perhaps more common in Hudson, wealthy Manhattanites purchase and renovate second homes here, and turn them into vacation outposts while conducting the bulk of their lives elsewhere.

The second way a neighborhood is improved is when the people already there experience improved financial fortune, and in turn fix up their homes and business establishments. Of the two models, I believe this is the more genuine one, even if its physical results are indistinguishable (by some) from the first. The first model, which I call an objective model of urban improvement, is directed at the physical repair of a place, while the second, subjective model seeks to motivate the physical repair of a place as a byproduct of cultural repair.

Hudsonians who are satisfied with the first model are being very short sighted about our city, about the urban problem generally, and about the causes of and cures for America's cultural ills. They don't understand that, comparatively speaking, one isn't repairing much of significance if all he repairs is a building. They don't understand that the embedded problems of a culture are not being addressed when struggling people are forced out of a neighborhood and out of a city just so its buildings can be renovated. All this does is put Hudson on the winning side of a zero-sum game. But so what? these folks seem to think; that is a problem for Troy or Albany or Schenectady to figure out.

But I will admit that my friends are right about one thing: the people moving into Hudson are making a difference. They indeed are.