Opinion | Why Are Housing Costs So High? The Elevator Can Explain Why.

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My mission to understand the American elevator began in 2021 when I came down with a crippling post-viral illness. The stairs to my third-floor Brooklyn walk-up apartment would leave me dizzy and winded, my ears ringing, heart beating out of my chest. At 32, I’d joined the 12 percent of Americans who report “serious difficulty” with stairs. On bad days, I became a prisoner in my own home.

A few months later, visiting Bucharest, I rode the elevator in my mother’s five-story building. A developer in a much poorer Eastern European country could afford to include an elevator, but the developer of my luxury five-story building in Brooklyn, built 25 years after the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, could not? I quit my job in real estate and started a nonprofit focused on building codes and construction policy.

Through my research on elevators, I got a glimpse into why so little new housing is built in America, and why what is built is often of such low quality and at high cost. The problem with elevators is a microcosm of the challenges of the broader construction industry — from labor to building codes to a sheer lack of political will. These challenges are at the root of a mounting housing crisis that has spread to nearly every part of the country and is damaging our economic productivity and our environment.

Elevators in North America have become over-engineered, bespoke, handcrafted and expensive pieces of equipment that are unaffordable in all the places where they are most needed. Special interests here have run wild with an outdated, inefficient, overregulated system. Accessibility rules miss the forest for the trees. Our broken immigration system cannot supply the labor that the construction industry desperately needs. Regulators distrust global best practices and our construction rules are so heavily oriented toward single-family housing that we’ve forgotten the basics of how a city should work.

Similar themes explain everything from our stalled high-speed rail development to why it’s so hard to find someone to fix a toilet or shower. It’s become hard to shake the feeling that America has simply lost the capacity to build things in the real world, outside of an app.

The passenger elevator was invented and popularized in the United States, and helped our country grow into an economic powerhouse. The elevator-powered Manhattan skyline would become the command center for the global economy, where a wave of postwar redevelopment would turn emptied-out old tenements into rows of luxury elevator buildings, fortifying the city with a middle- and upper-income tax base to counterbalance the coming decades of urban decay.

Nobody is marveling at American elevators anymore. With around one million of them, the United States is tied for total installed devices with Italy or Spain (the latter of which has one-seventh our population, 6 percent of our gross domestic product, and less than half as many apartments). Switzerland and New York City have roughly the same population, but the lower-rise alpine country has three times as many single-family houses as Gotham — and twice as many passenger elevators.

In Western Europe, small new apartment buildings of just three stories typically include a small elevator (and sometimes buildings of just two stories as well). These types of buildings have almost never had elevators in America, and developers are planning and building new five- and six-story walk-ups in some cities. When a developer in Philadelphia or Denver comes across a piece of land zoned for a few stories, elevator expenses are often one reason they build townhouses rather than condos — fewer in number and with higher price tags.

Behind the dearth of elevators in the country that birthed the skyscraper are eye-watering costs. A basic four-stop elevator costs about $158,000 in New York City, compared with about $36,000 in Switzerland. A six-stop model will set you back more than three times as much in Pennsylvania as in Belgium. Maintenance, repairs, and inspections all cost more in America too.

The first thing to notice about our elevators is that, like many things in America, they are huge. New elevators outside the U.S. are typically sized to accommodate a person in a large wheelchair plus somebody standing behind them. American elevators have ballooned to about twice that size, driven by a drip-drip-drip of regulations, each motivated by a slightly different concern — first accessibility, then accommodation for ambulance stretchers, then even bigger stretchers.

The U.S. and Canada have also marooned themselves on a regulatory island for elevator parts and designs. Much of the rest of the world has settled on following European elevator standards, which have been harmonized and refined over generations. Some of these differences between American and global standards only result in minor physical differences, while others add the hassle of a separate certification process without changing the final product.

If physics is the same everywhere, and there are no measurable differences in safety outcomes, why reinvent the wheel (or elevator)? America’s reputation for unbridled capitalism, and a stereotype of Europe as a backwater of overregulation is often turned on its head in the construction sector.

Not only do we have our own elevator code, but individual U.S. jurisdictions modify it further. More accurate and efficient electronic testing practices, for example, are still mostly viewed with suspicion by the nearly 100 separate boards and jurisdictions that regulate elevator safety in North America (the exact number in the regulatory patchwork is hard to nail down exactly).

And then there’s labor. Americans, and citizens of almost every high-income country, rely on immigrants in construction. But there are few legal ways in for construction workers — H-1B visas, which allow foreigners in tech and other industries to work in the U.S., are usually only for professions that require college degrees. Immigrant workers without papers therefore typically stick to nonlicensed construction trades like painting or framing.

That works for single-family houses, with their simpler construction. But it’s led to skyrocketing construction labor costs in cities, where stricter licensing and physical complexity of multifamily construction can make it untenable to hire a large slice of the construction labor pool. Workers’ lack of legal status and stability make it tough for them to get licensed or enroll in apprenticeships or other formal job training programs. The fewer the workers available to do a job, the more the job costs.

This tight market for skilled and licensed labor has strengthened the hand of the elevator union — power it uses to create even more of a labor squeeze.

Architects have dreamed of modular construction for decades, where entire rooms are built in factories and then shipped on flatbed trucks to sites, for lower costs and greater precision. But we can’t even put elevators together in factories in America, because the elevator union’s contract forbids even basic forms of preassembly and prefabrication that have become standard in elevators in the rest of the world. The union and manufacturers bicker over which holes can be drilled in a factory and which must be drilled (or redrilled) on site. Manufacturers even let elevator and escalator mechanics take some components apart and put them back together on site to preserve work for union members, since it’s easier than making separate, less-assembled versions just for the U.S.

American building codes and federal law may dictate how large an elevator must be, but they often have little to say about whether one is required at all for apartments. Given the expense, our apartments often just go without.

Beyond the elevator itself, you’ll find a byzantine mess of absurdities and contradictions behind the U.S. construction industry’s slowness, inefficiency and expense. For example, Americans cannot use the latest heat pumps — a critical tool for fighting climate change by electrifying heating systems — due to the same sorts of barriers imposed by U.S. regulators. Instead, Americansrely on obsolete heat pumps that don’t have a market abroad. And plumbing codes in America require an entire network of ventilation piping that has been deemed largely unnecessary in much of the world.

America’s single-family suburbs largely avoid this dysfunction. Over decades, single-family homebuilders and politicians responsive to their concerns have kept a close eye on building codes and the costs they may generate. The National Association of Home Builders has negotiated guaranteed seats on the national model code committees that regulate single-family houses, and it doesn’t shy away from making its case directly to legislators when it feels that those national model codes threaten affordability and should be overridden.

But multifamily developers, traditionally a weaker and less organized constituency, are mostly checked out, so materials manufacturers and organized labor — for whom higher prices mean more money — have run amok.

And it shows. Construction costs for detached single-family houses average about $153 per square foot. In America’s most in-demand coastal cities, multifamily construction costs have exploded. Even subsidized multifamily housing in California can cost $500 per square foot (or more).

A generation of young, would-be homeowners locked out by skyrocketing housing costs has taken notice. Their first target was a century of tightening land-use regulation, in which existing homeowners enriched themselves by blocking development through restrictive zoning measures. In recent years, the rise of the so-called YIMBY — or “yes in my backyard” — movement has succeeded in all but abolishing single-family zoning on the West Coast.

But as zoning codes were liberalized, architects and developers soon began ringing alarm bells about the hurdles buried in the finer points of building codes and standards, and other more technical rules.

And so, a new front is breaking out in the housing war.

The advocacy group California YIMBY and its partners have sponsored a bill to rein in an overly litigious legal climate that has made condos almost impossible to build in the state. With the help of the Center for Building in North America, the organization I founded, another bill passed directing the California fire marshal to study national model building code provisions that limit the height of small, single-stair apartment buildings to three stories (one of the most stringent limits in the developed world). And in Vermont, the state legislature and fire marshal are reviewing building and fire code provisions with an eye toward increasing production of housing (including cheaper elevators).

If elevators are ever to be as inexpensive and abundant in North America as they are in Europe and Asia, deeper reforms will be necessary.

Adopting the European elevator standard would open up the market to more competition and parts. We should grant some leniency when it comes to elevator size for small apartment buildings that are at risk of having no elevator at all (or not being built in the first place). Some thought should be given to accommodating less credentialed immigrants like those who work in construction, like in the European Union. In the meantime, vocational and technical training in public high schools should be improved to supply the elevator industry with more native-born workers.

And then there are bigger-picture questions about what to do about our complex system of rules, and the groups that oversee them. The federal government could raze the existing system by setting uniform rules for construction with more of an eye toward global best practices and cost, perhaps starting with elevators. The federal government could condition the billions it hands out for housing assistance on the adoption of new codes, like it has done with highway funding and the now-uniform 21-year-old minimum drinking age.

America has grown extraordinarily rich from white-collar industries like software engineering and finance. But with “email job” couples earning well into the six digits now struggling to afford to live in many American cities, we are bumping up against the limits of what quality of life an economy built on apps can provide. Software and financial engineers can’t make my apartment building accessible, so at some point we must relearn how to build things in the real world. Maybe the elevator can teach us how.

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