The New York Area Is Missing As Many As 200,000 Construction Jobs

Earlier this year, YIMBY was invited to speak on a panel at the Solving Urban Land Use Problems in the 21st Century summit, organized by the city’s three graduate planning schools. Before the panel, organizers sent a list of topics to be discussed, among them ensuring equitable access to construction jobs in New York City.

Non-Hispanic blacks and Asians are underrepresented and Latinos and non-Hispanic whites are overrepresented in the city’s construction sector. A potentially bigger problem, though, even for the underrepresented groups, isn’t how the pie is divided, but how small the pie is in the first place. Our very low housing stock growth has robbed the New York region of as many as 200,000 well paying, solidly middle-class construction jobs.

Rather than squabbling over the share of union jobs on worksites, city and regional politicians would do better to focus on increasing the size of the construction industry as a whole.

Outside of slow-growing areas like New York, Los Angeles, and Boston, construction jobs generally account for between 4 percent and 7 percent of a region’s total jobs. But in New York, the number is much lower: just 2.86 percent.

If the New York area’s construction industry accounted for as large a share of total employment as in and around Chicago, Philadelphia, or Miami, we would have 220,000 construction jobs. If we were more like San Francisco or Washington, D.C., the region would have around 270,000 construction jobs. And if we were booming like Dallas, Toronto, or Houston, we could have somewhere around 350,000 such jobs.

Instead, New York City and its surrounding cities and suburbs have less than 160,000 construction industry jobs.

The situation for New York City is especially dire, due to our lack of manufacturing jobs, which employ similar workers at similar wages. Of the nearly 360,000 manufacturing jobs in the region, almost 80 percent are located outside of the five boroughs.

But unlike manufacturing jobs, which have proven difficult (if not impossible) to resuscitate in urban areas that have lost them, gaining construction jobs is easy: build more. (And in New York City, where the demand is already there, building more means merely allowing developers to build more.)

There is a direct correlation between a region’s rate of housing stock growth and its construction jobs. Tokyo, Toronto, and Houston all have very liberal land use regimes and produce large quantities of housing – the cities proper all build at a rate around three times that of New York, which, despite its tremendous demand, is among the slowest building cities in the country.

And lest you think that a mature city must inevitably slow down its growth, note that Tokyo – capital of a country that’s obviously in demographic decline, and far and away the most populous urban area on earth – is building at a faster rate than almost every American city.

The growth of New York City’s tech industry is a welcome replacement for the city’s retreating finance industry. But a region cannot thrive, even in the 21st century, on highly skilled white collar jobs alone. With no proven way to rebuild the city’s manufacturing base, the only realistic hope to improve the fortunes of job-seeking middle-class New Yorkers is to increase the amount of construction in the city and region, and increase it dramatically.

While Bill de Blasio and his administration have made noises about improving the city’s low housing stock growth rate, they have yet to set any hard targets for overall new construction, making it difficult to know how serious they are about tackling the problem.

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