Gov. Hochul’s ambitious housing plan meets suburban blockade


Gov. Kathy Hochul’s plan to build 800,000 new homes over the next 10 years statewide is running into a familiar obstacle: suburbanites.

Already, local officials in Westchester County, the Hudson Valley and on Long Island are organizing against the central plank of the Democrat’s newly unveiled plan that would set housing production targets for every city, town or village in the state. If a municipality misses the mark, the state could step in and approve new housing development, Hochul said.

Suburban leaders have proved themselves formidable foes; last year they led an organized, sustained public pressure campaign to force Hochul to retreat on a prior proposal that would have allowed single-family homeowners to legally rent out apartments in their attic, basement or garage, regardless of local zoning.

Now, the same political forces say Hochul is again overstepping, even though hardly anyone is willing to criticize the plan’s intent of providing housing in areas of the state that desperately need it. Some suburbanites have begun attacking the proposal in the media and community forums, hoping to use the same playbook as last year to publicly pressure the governor into reconsidering her methods.

“Just the idea to paint the entire state with the same broad stroke? It makes absolutely no sense to me,” said state Sen. Anthony Palumbo, a Long Island Republican. “Look, do we need additional housing? Of course we do, but local control is critical.”

But Hochul and plan supporters say that local control has blocked sorely needed housing for decades. She said the state has to impose some kind of an enforcement mechanism to compel construction and build out of New York’s current housing crisis.

New York needs more housing, affordable units

Over the last decade, New York added 1.2 million jobs but only 400,000 new homes, Hochul said in her State of the State address earlier this month. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates the state needs more than 615,000 new homes priced for “extremely low-income renters” — defined as families of three earning less than $36,000. Middle-income New Yorkers are also feeling the pinch from record-high rents, and for most, buying a home in the Big Apple is out of the question.

Housing experts say the problem extends beyond the borders of New York City. Long Island suburbs have developed homes at a lower rate than nearly any other metropolitan area in the country, according to Department of City Planning data first reported by New York Focus. Some Nassau County towns have flat-out prohibited new homes from going up. In contrast, New Jersey counties immediately adjacent to New York City have produced five times as many units.

The plan put forth by Hochul would force towns in counties served by the MTA to increase housing supply by 3% over three years. Towns upstate would only have to go up by 1%. So-called “affordable housing” would count double toward the goal, meaning a town in Nassau County could increase housing by 1.5% if the rents or sale prices are capped based on tenant income.

New York City increased its housing stock by about 2% over the past three years, meaning it would also have to step up development.

Speaking to reporters in Rochester last Monday, Hochul said she anticipated the opposition from suburban leaders protective of home rule.

“But I also know that we all have to play our part in solving a crisis, because people want to live in those communities,” Hochul said. “They want to live in Westchester and Nassau and Suffolk in particular. There’s a lot of jobs down there, and a lot of employers are saying, ‘I can’t get the workers I need.’ We have to have affordable housing to bring them out.”

Hochul said she intends to fight barriers to building housing by providing state assistance to help with the associated infrastructure needs — more schools, more sewers, more roads and the like.

“We’re going to help them financially,” she said. “We’re going to help them overcome those hurdles, and also there’ll be incentives for people to do this building.”

A history of suburban pushback

Sen. Peter Harckham, a Westchester Democrat, knows the kind of pushback housing proposals can generate in the suburbs. Last year, he sponsored the accessory dwelling unit proposal that generated intense criticism from some quarters.

“I know from personal experience, most municipalities are incredibly wed to their authority with home rule and are very defensive of that,” Harckham said. “I’ve already heard from some municipalities who just conceptually are in opposition [to Hochul’s new plan]. Others are saying, let’s wait until we see what the actual language is.”

This isn’t the first attempt to build more affordable housing in the burbs. Advocates have long pushed for more supply, particularly for people on fixed incomes. At times, the federal government has had to step in.

That includes 2009, when Westchester County entered into a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that required it to build 750 units of affordable housing in 31 primarily white communities. On Long Island, a 2019 investigation by Newsday recalled the suburbs’ explicit history of segregation by revealing how housing agents continue to steer people of color away from majority white towns and neighborhoods. To this day, deeds in Levittown, the first planned suburban community in the country, reference the original restrictive covenants that barred residents from selling homes to people of color.

But Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman, a Republican, scoffed at the idea that fighting density and protecting “suburban values” amounts to coded racism.

“That’s absolutely ridiculous,” Blakeman said Jan. 12 on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.” “I’m not even gonna entertain that. The fact of the matter is that Nassau County has the largest-growing Hispanic community probably in the region. We have a huge Hispanic population that’s growing. We have a huge Asian population that’s growing. We have a significant African American population. Nassau County is a snapshot of the United States of America, and we have all people.”

Many towns on Long Island remain overwhelmingly white, though New York City’s suburbs have become more diverse. Nassau County’s white, non-Hispanic population dropped below 60% for the first time in 2018, according to census data.

David Michaels, a financial planner, said changing demographics helped draw him and his family to Nassau County. He and his wife, Valerie Michaels, said they moved to Port Washington seven years ago after living in Great Neck and Queens.

“It’s a heterogenous community with good schools, nice people,” Michaels said as the couple waited to board the Long Island Rail Road on a rainy Thursday morning earlier this month.

The train stop provides direct access to Penn Station in just under 45 minutes. That makes Port Washington, which boasts a population of around 17,000 people, a key target for modest growth under Hochul’s housing plan.

The station is surrounded by single-family homes and some apartments above storefronts in three- and four-story buildings.

Valerie Michaels, a federal employee, said she would support new housing in the town but wasn’t sure where it would go. Local groups have recently opposed development along the waterfront.

She predicted more pushback to come.

“Some people always resist something,” she said.

Housing push praised, but methods criticized

Few opponents publicly criticize Hochul’s goal — resolving the state’s housing crisis — and instead focus on those infrastructure concerns, along with overreach from Albany.

“I share the same concerns that the governor has, but we are yards apart — miles apart — as it comes to process,” said Rockland County Executive Ed Day, a Republican. “What she’s looking to do is well-intentioned, I’m sure. But it is absurd on its face.”

Day said he’s already talked with his county attorney about the possibility of challenging Hochul’s housing plan in court if the state Legislature ends up approving it. He believes it would violate local governments’ constitutional right to home rule.

Blakeman said he’s not yet ready to “pull the fire alarm” on Hochul’s proposal — at least not before he sees more details that are expected to come in her budget proposal due Feb. 1. He has expressed support for housing development near mass transit stations in the past, another centerpiece of Hochul’s plan.

But in his interview with Lehrer, Blakeman made clear he would fight any effort to wrest zoning decisions from the hands of local officials.

“I think the governor has to understand that people moved to Nassau County, Suffolk County because they don’t want density, and that’s why they moved out of the city of New York,” Blakeman said.

Town of North Hempstead Supervisor Jennifer DeSena, another Republican, painted an even scarier picture for suburbanites, warning that the plan would “turn Nassau County into New York City and unilaterally flood our communities with thousands of apartments and high-density zoning.”

Yet the plan would hardly turn sleepy Long Island villages into metropolises. A town of 10,000 would have to create between 150 and 300 new homes to meet the housing requirement.

“A 3% goal in a small town would not require a large-scale gigantic development like a Co-op City to be created in their area,” said Matthew Dunbar, the executive vice president at Habitat for Humanity New York City and Westchester County.

Local control would still apply when it comes to housing types, locations and affordability levels, but towns shouldn’t be let off the hook, especially when their restrictions are driving up rents and prices in New York City and other nearby municipalities, he said.

“A regional housing crisis needs a regional approach,” he added.


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