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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

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OPINION | What’s wrong with New York?

Bashing New York City has long been a popular pastime on the right. Conservatives often paint the Big Apple as a dystopian wasteland. The bashing has reached fever pitch since Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg announced multiple charges against Donald Trump. How dare Bragg pursue these cases, the Republican asked, when crime is out of control in his home state?

But crime in New York isn’t really out of control. Like many places, crime has spiked during the pandemic but appears to be fading; despite Republican disbelief, crime rates in America’s safest big cities are still far below those in Miami or Columbus, Ohio.

Still, even before the pandemic, there was a steady flow, if not a large number, of people leaving New York. Why are they leaving? It’s probably not a crime, although perception may not align with reality. Probably not taxes, either; I’ll get there in a minute. The biggest factor was, and still is, almost certainly the cost of housing.

On perceptions: From the early 1990s to the pandemic, crime rates dropped dramatically as the public agreed that crime rates were rising. Interestingly, though, only a small minority of the public said crime was rising in their area — Americans seem to think crime is spiking somewhere, not where they live.

It’s worth mentioning that, despite the recent rise in crime, much of New York doesn’t pose a threat to the casual observer. I know Marjorie Taylor Green called the city “disgusting”, “dirty”, “disgusting” and “a horrible place” after a quick visit. Of course, there are bad communities too. But for most of us who actually live here, life looks normal, and it’s hard to believe that there are large numbers of people escaping the urban nightmare. In fact, New York has a great quality of life in many ways—if you can afford it.

But can you afford it?

New York is a high-tax state—and it has to be to pay for relatively generous social programs. New York City imposes additional taxes. These taxes do make living in New York more expensive.

However, while red states have lower average tax rates than blue states, red state taxes are highly regressive: they collect a much higher share of income from the poor and middle class than they do from the top 1% many. So the difference in red and blue tax rates for the average household is smaller than you might think.

According to the Tax and Economic Policy Institute, the middle 60 percent of taxpayers in Texas pay 9.4 percent of their income in state and local taxes.that’s actually higher Tax rates above the median income family in California. New Yorkers pay more — 12.5 percent — but those extra three-point taxes probably aren’t a big reason to leave.

Taxes for the top 1 percent of the population vary widely — 11.3 percent in New York and 3.1 percent in Texas — and there are clearly some high-income earners who are moving for lower taxes. But those same people may also think highly of the amenities of a large, complex city; New York remains one of the favorite residences of the world’s wealthiest people.

For the middle class, however, living in New York is really hard to afford—not so much because of taxes but because of housing costs. This is a very rough metric (I’m sure experts can come up with a more accurate measure, but the conclusion certainly won’t change): Zillow says the median apartment rent in New York is $3,500, which is higher than the median rent in New York About $1,500 for, say, Dallas. Since the median annual income of New York households is about $70,000, the “housing tax” paid by middle-class families to live in New York is about 20% of their income, which is several times the actual tax difference. If you’re looking to buy a house, the price gap is about the same: Dallas is about 40 percent cheaper.

Oh, and to the extent that you see homelessness — a symptom of New York’s social dislocation — homelessness is largely the result of expensive and unavailable housing.

So housing costs, not crime or taxes, are the biggest reason people might want to leave New York. The good news is that the housing affordability problem is worse in most of California than here.

The problem is, this doesn’t have to happen. The greater New York area is much more densely populated than anywhere else in the United States, with an average of 15,000 residents per square mile in census tracts. Even so, more housing can be built – I live in a neighborhood of 60,000 people per square mile, and it’s nicer and even quieter than you can imagine; no, it’s not a human nightmare.

One of the main reasons developers aren’t building more housing in the New York area, and why it’s expensive to live here, is because of zoning, land use restrictions, and — especially in the suburbs — community opposition that they aren’t allowed.

In other words, never mind the lurid right-wing fantasies: NIMBY, not crime or taxes, is the major problem in the New York area.

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