In today’s economically vibrant and high-cost cities like New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., housing growth and housing affordability are a function of two variables: zoning and politics. This Article focuses on both in an edge case—New York City’s three fastest-growing ethnic and immigrant enclaves, where larger households, lower incomes, and greater place-dependence raise the stakes of the zoning game.
First are Hasidic Jewish communities, who employ a “Voice” strategy. By virtue of numbers, spatial dominance within their enclaves, and bloc voting patterns, the Hasidic Jews of Brooklyn have successfully advocated for rezonings and special rules that have enabled them to densify and expand their enclaves over time.
Second are Chinese communities, who employ an “Exit” strategy. When Manhattan Chinatown became too crowded and expensive, satellite Chinatowns emerged in lower-density and lower-cost, outer-borough neighborhoods with shrinking white populations and good transit connections to Chinatown.
Third are Bangladeshi, Indo-Caribbean, and other ethnically South Asian communities, who employ an “Underground” strategy. Lacking political clout or anywhere else to go in an increasingly housing-constrained city, these most recent arrivals rode the subprime mortgage market to lower density outer-borough neighborhoods. There, they resorted to unauthorized conversions and accessory dwellings that in many neighborhoods amount to nothing less than guerrilla rezonings—and that resulted in a spate of “defensive downzonings” as incumbent residents fought back.
Drawing from these three case studies, this Article identifies the formal and informal strategies for effecting land use change in high-density urban areas, and illustrates when these strategies are employed and why they meet with varying degrees of success. In doing so, this Article provides guidance for practitioners facing the daunting challenge of expanding access to housing in high-cost, supply-constrained cities.