Aggressive New York Housing Plan Borrows Ideas From Other States

New York’s housing shortage has been building for years, and for just as long, state officials have done relatively little to address it. But now, as rents and home prices reach crisis levels, Gov. Kathy Hochul is racing to come up with solutions.

She appears to have found one in California. And in Massachusetts. And in New Jersey and Connecticut. And maybe even in Utah.

Ms. Hochul’s ambitious new housing plan, which proposes to loosen restrictions on development from coastal Long Island suburbs to the capital region to New York City, is less a homegrown innovation and more a combination of strategies collected and refined from across the United States.

“New York is really, really late to the ball here,” said Noah Kazis, a law professor at the University of Michigan who studies land use and housing. “But they have the benefit of being able to learn and borrow.”

From California, Ms. Hochul is proposing a requirement that cities set and meet housing growth targets. Her proposal also adapts a new Massachusetts plan that loosens restrictions on development around train and bus stations. Mirroring a program in Utah, the Hochul administration is proposing a “choose-your-own-adventure” scheme that lets communities select from different policies — such as eliminating constraints on building heights or converting former strip malls — to make way for more homes.

And, like in Connecticut, New Jersey and several other states, if a New York community tries to back out of its obligations to build, Ms. Hochul’s plan would let developers sidestep local restrictions.

The result is a wide-ranging plan that would foster a new pro-housing model in New York if it is passed by the State Legislature.

The plan is contentious: Some politicians on the right say it improperly erodes local power, while others on the left note that it would probably not immediately help the lowest-earning residents who are struggling the most with affordability.

But it would add New York to a growing list of states where liberal and more conservative leaders alike are arguing that to control housing costs in the future, it is crucial to accelerate development.

They say the state should play a bigger role in deciding how many homes get built and where, because local officials have failed to address the crisis.

Whether the plan will make New York more affordable is still an open question, since many of the places the state is borrowing its ideas from are also still in relatively early stages of implementing their programs.

“Those areas that are experiencing the highest housing demand still haven’t perfected the formula of policies that will enable more housing opportunity,” said Sara Bronin, a planning and law professor at Cornell University. “They’re all still trying.”

The backdrop is that many American communities have not built enough housing in recent decades to satisfy the need — a supply constraint that pushes prices up. The country is short some 3.8 million housing units, Freddie Mac estimated in 2021.

A December report from the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit group, estimated that New York needs to add more than 817,000 homes over the next decade to keep up with population growth and ease overcrowding.

Few suburbs in the nation allow homes to be built at lower rates than the suburbs on Long Island and in Westchester County, Mr. Kazis found in recent paper for the New York University Furman Center. New York City has issued fewer building permits per resident over most of the past decade than other high-demand cities like Boston, Austin and San Francisco.

The city now boasts some of the highest rents in the nation. The median monthly rent for new leases in Brooklyn, taking into account concessions like free months, was almost $3,500 in January, according to the brokerage Douglas Elliman, up from almost $2,900 in January 2020.

For many years, in New York as in other places, politicians from the right and the left were lauded for keeping new development out of their communities. But that may be changing, as the City Council, Mayor Eric Adams and President Biden push plans that would make it easier to build.

Ms. Hochul’s plan would require every community to expand its housing stock by a certain percentage.Credit…Cindy Schultz for The New York Times

State officials acknowledge that their new plan may not immediately help people struggling with housing costs. But they said that there had never been a more politically favorable time to loosen the restrictions on development, which they say must be done to prevent the affordability crisis from getting worse.

“We have to have a long-term strategy that we haven’t had before,” RuthAnne Visnauskas, the commissioner of the of the state’s housing and community renewal division who helped develop the plan, said in an interview.

She said New York officials held extensive calls with other states to understand their approaches.

California, for example, relies on complex formulas to determine how many homes each city and county must build over an eight-year period, a process the state auditor found could be prone to errors. The state has fallen short in reaching its goals so far, building less than half of the 1.2 million homes it had set as a goal in the most recent period, state officials said last year.

New York’s plan remains relatively simple. It mainly calls for every community to expand its housing stock by set percentages — 3 percent downstate and 1 percent upstate, for example — every three years.

California advocates and lawmakers have also complained that their state has done little to enforce its pro-housing laws, and communities found creative ways to evade housing requirements. Ms. Hochul’s plan would allow the attorney general or developers to sue to force cities to comply with some of the new requirements. The state Housing Department would offer technical assistance on how to formulate new policies if any cities needed it.

In Massachusetts, the state at first tried to boost housing production through incentives, but they were frequently ignored, state officials said. Now, it is trying to coerce local governments to allow more housing.

“We definitely got the message loud and clear from people: Start with a mandate and not an incentive,” Ms. Visnauskas said in the interview.

As a result, New York is including what’s called a “builder’s remedy” in its plan. If a city or town improperly rejects a development and doesn’t meet its housing goals, a fast-track process can be triggered that could allow the state to let the development go forward anyway.

Utah passed a bill in 2019 that lets local governments pick from a list of 25 options to make room for more housing. New York’s plan simplifies that policy. Communities that miss their housing targets can instead pick two out of a list of five actions to avoid a “builder’s remedy” situation or harsher penalties.

Local concerns are still likely to present significant political hurdles to getting the governor’s plan passed in the Legislature.

Already, Republican officials on Long Island are bristling at the idea of mandatory housing targets and forced density around rail stations. Some have said that Ms. Hochul is trying to make Long Island a “sixth borough,” an argument that helped kill a push during the last legislative session for more homes around transit stations.

Even as left-leaning members of the State Legislature have said they are in favor of Ms. Hochul’s proposal, there is frustration that the governor has yet to support their top priority — a bill that could protect many renters from sharp increases.

Cea Weaver, the campaign coordinator of Housing Justice for All, a statewide coalition of tenants, said that she was “amenable” to Ms. Hochul’s plan and that it was good that the governor was making housing a top priority. But she noted that California, Oregon and New Jersey have all also put in place “good cause eviction” laws, which help prevent the eviction of tenants who fall behind on rent if the increases are higher than a certain threshold.

“Her solutions don’t match the urgency that people who can’t afford the rent are feeling day to day,” Ms. Weaver said.

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