Air rights—the ability to sell the invisible real estate hovering above your property—have become a big New York City issue in recent years as property values have skyrocketed. A new report recommends easing the city’s archaic restrictions to spur positive growth—including building more affordable housing.
“Unlocking the Right To Build” is authored by NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy and includes a very detailed but simple solution: a plan to change the zoning policy and allow property owners to transfer their unused air rights to other lots in the city.
To understand how this would work, here’s a quick primer on air rights: For each lot in the city, the zoning code specifies how many square feet of real estate are allowed per square foot of lot size. This number, the Floor Area Ratio (or FAR), varies from property based on location, use, and whether or not developers add things like public space to the building. But most of the buildings in the city are built far below their maximum FARs, so there are millions of square feet of unused air rights... just hanging there, empty.
New York City already allows very limited transferable development rights (TDRs), mostly in the case of when a neighboring lot wants to build higher and buys the unused ratio from next door. The report recommends several new ways that buildings can shift their rights to allow development elsewhere. Take, for example, a landmarked building in a dense area that is allowed a very high FAR—of course you wouldn’t want to knock it down and build something taller, but the owners should be able to sell those air rights and transfer them anywhere in the city, right?
What this report does is show the tremendous opportunity that an underbuilt New York holds. Just the landmarked buildings alone which are located in the bottom half of Manhattan (below Central Park) hold more than 33 million square feet of unused development rights—the equivalent of 12 Empire State Buildings or roughly 33,000 apartments which could be built.
The affordable housing crisis is definitely the biggest problem facing New York City at the moment, but the city is also a battleground for air rights, where groups are trying to stop developers from building supertalls which they say will rob the city of its (already limited) natural light.
But, even if the report doesn’t succeed in changing the zoning, it might serve as inspiration for other cites: The report might also help places like San Francisco that definitely need to start looking skyward.