In an insult to New Yorkers suffering from spiraling rents and home prices, both houses of New York’s Democratic-controlled Legislature rejected an ambitious set of proposals from Gov. Kathy Hochul last week that would begin to address the crisis in available housing.
The legislators appear to be capitulating to the panic of their suburban members, as well as a smaller but persistent group of NIMBYs who oppose development in New York City. Lately, those voices have proven stubborn. Some of the backlash to the effort to build more housing in the suburbs has evoked euphemistic language that might have brought a smile to a Southern segregationist in the era of “states’ rights.”
“We see it as an attack on our suburban communities,” State Senator Jack Martins, a Republican from Nassau County on Long Island, said in a hearing on the housing proposal in Albany on March 1.
Moments later, State Senator Pamela Helming, a Republican who represents the Rochester suburbs, said her opposition to the governor’s housing plan was about “helping retain the unique character of our communities.”
Donald X. Clavin Jr., a town supervisor in Nassau County, also a Republican, co-wrote a letter last week encouraging officials to protest the governor’s housing plan, saying it was “imperative that local government retain the authority to act in the best interests of those they represent.”
The proposal from Ms. Hochul, a moderate Democrat, would simply bring the state’s housing policy into the 21st century, building crucially needed housing in the suburbs by slashing Jim Crow-era zoning laws. Under that promising plan, New York City and its suburbs would be required to increase their housing supply by 3 percent every three years, and towns elsewhere in the state by 1 percent every three years. More housing would be built in areas along commuter rail lines. The state would be able to override local zoning laws in areas that fail to increase their housing supply.
The knee-jerk alarmism over building more housing in the suburbs is embarrassing. It’s also completely unnecessary. Other states, including Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts and Oregon, have already enacted measures similar to the ones the governor has proposed. Some, like California, have essentially banned single-family zoning altogether. The purpose isn’t to attack the suburbs but to help them grow, along with the rest of the state.
The housing crisis in New York State has locked out middle-class families and young people from homeownership, left hundreds of thousands burdened with high rents, and sent tens of thousands of working people into public shelters. Of 3.43 million renters in the state, more than half, roughly 1.7 million, spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Yet instead of strengthening Ms. Hochul’s housing plan, the State Senate and Assembly last week offered proposals that would gut it.
Just how out of touch is the State Legislature? Alternative proposals from both houses would keep the housing targets set by the governor, but give the state no authority to enforce them. They would scrap the plan’s requirement for new housing along commuter rails. They would cut proposed measures for relief in New York City, including a plan to legalize basement apartments and make them safer. The Assembly proposal would also render moot the proposed expansion of a New York City program aimed at converting empty office space to housing.
Instead, the Legislature’s plan would offer $500 million in incentives to be distributed to localities that meet the housing targets, but impose no consequences for those that choose not to build new housing.
“We believe we can get there with incentives,” Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Senate majority leader, said last Thursday in Albany.
But there is solid evidence from other states, including Connecticut and Massachusetts, that incentives alone will not result in more housing. One reason, as noted by the Furman Center, a housing policy research group, is that wealthy towns generally prefer to keep their exclusionary zoning policies rather than receive unneeded funds from the state. Many of these communities have long histories of enacting exclusionary zoning laws and have shown that they will not produce the housing the region needs on their own.
A state in the throes of a housing crisis can’t simply let them do as they please, all while they benefit from billions in state investment in commuter rail systems.
In one bright spot, the Legislature did signal some support for common-sense protections for renters in good standing. One such proposal, sought by housing advocates, would limit rental increases for market-rate apartments upon lease renewal to up to 1.5 times the Consumer Price Index or 3 percent, whichever is higher, except for owner-occupied buildings with a small number of units. (With current inflation, that would allow rent increases of about 10 percent.) Landlords may in some cases be able to charge more when they can show they have incurred additional costs, but could not evict a tenant except for violating the terms of the lease, a policy known as “good cause eviction.”
The real estate industry is fighting hard against the proposal. Yet New Jersey enacted similar basic protections for renters years ago and continues to outpace New York in housing production. These protections are badly needed in New York, where price gouging is common and evictions are on the rise. Addressing the housing crisis means keeping people in their homes as well as building more housing.
But tenant protections alone will not solve the root problem of the crisis, which is the dire lack of housing supply. To do that, the Legislature will have to work with the governor to dismantle the single-family zoning laws that make it impossible to build new housing in the suburbs.
So far, the proposals from the Legislature are not serious. There is also evidence that they are out of step with some of their constituents. One survey of state residents, paid for by Open New York and other pro-housing groups and conducted last month by Slingshot Strategies, found significant support for building more housing in the suburbs.
More than two-thirds of respondents statewide, 72 percent, said they supported building more housing near train stations. Of a group surveyed in suburban Westchester and Putnam Counties, north of New York City, 56 percent said they would support giving the state authority to override local zoning laws in towns that fail to build more housing.
The poll, though small, reflects the intensity of the housing crisis in the state, where even middle- and upper-middle-class suburbanites have found that their adult children cannot afford to live or raise families in the communities in which they grew up.
New York has never fully reckoned with its history of racist housing policies, which have helped make the region among the most segregated in the United States. Even New York officials who acknowledge that history appear unprepared to remedy it.
“I couldn’t agree more that there was redlining, exclusionary zoning — there’s a lot of ills,” said Mayor Mary Marvin of Bronxville, in Westchester, in an interview recently. “But I just think this plan is a disaster,” she added. “We are so darn built out.” Ms. Marvin said she would be open to building some “work force housing” to help police officers and teachers live in the community.
Whether they like it or not, New York officials fighting to maintain these exclusionary housing policies are on the wrong side of history, defending zoning laws written to keep Black, Hispanic, Jewish, Asian and other Americans from sharing in the prosperity and opportunity of the country’s suburbs.
Governor Hochul and the many state legislators who are serious about addressing the housing crisis have a legacy-making chance to push hard to dismantle these policies. Millions of New Yorkers are counting on them.
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