A Few Modest Proposals

Build vertical factories.
Large-scale industry was once at New York’s core, and architecture critic Nina Rappaport advocates dense mixed-use areas, each generating possibly thousands of jobs for the middle class. “You can’t just have high-end tech jobs and apartments,” she says, citing as models the Pfizer building in Williamsburg and Long Island City’s Standard Motor Products building, which has 1,200 workers from 40 firms on seven floors, from metalworkers to Jim Henson Muppet–makers.

Grant Airbnb amnesty.
Legalization would give millions of New Yorkers a way to earn a little extra cash—or not so little, given that even modest apartments can earn more than $100 each night their owners are out of town.

Finance fresh food.
An estimated 3 million New Yorkers live in neighborhoods underserved by grocery stores. The city could provide grants and loans to businesses providing fresh produce—a model, which would make food both more affordable and more healthy, first developed in Pennsylvania and now championed by Michelle Obama.

Reform property taxes.
Commercial and multifamily rental buildings, which define the city’s working-class neighborhoods, are taxed more than condos and single-family homes, which happen to be where the wealthy live. Washington Heights, as a whole, pays an effective property-tax rate of 4.3 percent, and Park Slope pays 0.9 percent. Revising property taxes could level the playing field and bring in hundreds of millions in revenue, which could be spent on a whole range of social services.

Help families save for college.
How can we nudge the door to the middle class open to the city’s poor? Studies show that a school savings account with any amount—even a dollar—makes a child more likely to attend college, yet almost a million New Yorkers don’t even have bank accounts. San Francisco had the same problem, and in 2010 it debuted a program giving kindergartners a Citibank savings account with $50 for college.

Make health care local.
Community health centers could replace hospital emergency rooms as primary-care providers, especially in less affluent neighborhoods. The dream: better health care for 500,000 people. Or take this approach: In 2007, a health-care nonprofit in Camden, New Jersey, identified the most expensive patients—“super-utilizers,” they’re called—and gave them concierge-like direct care for next to nothing. The health effect has been huge: The super-utilizers visit the hospital 40 percent less now.

Make life easy for big-box stores.
For all their problematic labor practices, retailers like Walmart offer prices between 8 and 27 percent lower than those of other supermarkets. We could use more of them.

Establish an infrastructure trust.
Budget cuts in Washington make it harder to extract federal billions needed for large-scale infrastructure. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel simply asked for support from financial institutions, which promised up to $1.7 billion. In New York, this would open a wide door to ideas—putting a High Line–style cap over part of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and building islands in the sea south of Manhattan that mute storm surges and filter the water. Even better, the middle and working classes wouldn’t have to fund the projects in taxes.

Reporting by Diana Lind, Clint Rainey, and Chris Smith. With proposals and guidance from Liz Accles, Vishaan Chakrabarti, Michelle Friedman, Alexander Garvin, Edward Glaeser, Elizabeth Green, Adam Greenfield, Rosanne Haggerty, Richard Kahlenberg, Joel Kotkin, the office of Councilman Brad Lander, Daniel McPhee, John Mollenkopf, Shola Olatoye, Nadia Owusu, Nina Rappaport, Jeff Rosenblum, Reihan Salam, David Schleicher, David Steiner, Josh Thomases, and Randi Weingarten.

A Few Modest Proposals