New York should create affordable housing in the suburbs

Downtown Ossining, New York.
Downtown Ossining, New York.
James Kirkikis/Shutterstock
Downtown Ossining, New York.

New York should create affordable housing in the suburbs

The housing crisis isn’t restricted to New York City. The suburbs need to do their part as well.
August 27, 2018

That New York City has a severe housing shortage is widely known, but this crisis goes well beyond the five boroughs. While the situation in New York City – especially in Manhattan and the gentrifying sections of the other boroughs – gets most of the attention, many of the suburbs have the same – or worse – affordability crisis.

The problem is particularly pronounced on New York’s side of the Hudson River, mostly because suburbs in New York state have added significantly fewer homes than suburbs in New Jersey recently. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Census Bureau, despite adding fewer jobs than the New York suburbs since 2010, Northern New Jersey has built almost twice as many homes. It’s not a surprise that every New Jersey county has a lower median rent than Suffolk and Nassau counties, and all but Somerset County have a lower median rent than Westchester.

In particular, the shortage is most acute at the bottom end of the market. Zoning rules in New York’s suburbs often prevent the construction of affordable rental apartments. This lack of affordable rents combined with the prohibitive cost of buying a home renders most suburban municipalities almost completely unaffordable to working-class, and even many middle-class, families. The solution to our region’s housing woes requires everyone to do their part in adding affordable housing. New York can, and should, use both carrots and sticks to force the issue.

Take Nassau County, the New York suburbs’ wealthiest – and most unaffordable – county. According to the American Community Survey, despite a population of over 1.3 million, there are just 40,800 apartments renting for less than $1,500 a month. These apartments are heavily concentrated in just a few areas in the county, such as the villages of Hempstead and Freeport. Out of the 69 cities, towns and villages in Nassau County which control their own land use, 36 have fewer than 50 apartments renting for under $1,500 a month. Twelve don’t have any.

This is not an accident. Local control of land use is often used as a means of exclusion.

Local zoning power is meant to allow municipalities to guide development so that it’s in the public interest. You don’t want a garbage dump next to a middle school, or a giant mall that only has one narrow access road and no parking.What it should not do is let municipalities exclude everyone who can’t afford an expensive home.

The New York Court of Appeals agrees, finding in the 1975 Berenson v. Town of New Castle decision that “in enacting a zoning ordinance, consideration must be given to regional needs and requirements.” More housing, and especially more affordable housing, is a desperate regional need. New York City is the least affordable metro area in the United States to rent an apartment.

Building more also would help combat segregation. The New York region as a whole is one of the most racially and economically segregated in the United States. Those 12 municipalities in Nassau County with no affordable housing are a combined 6 percent black and Hispanic. Not allowing sufficient housing in one municipality means overcrowding and unaffordability in others and not allowing affordable housing options in wealthy white suburbs means solidifying racial and economic segregation.

New York does not have any legal requirements to truly enforce the Berenson decision or balance local priorities with regional housing needs. Many of the wealthier suburbs aren’t doing their fair share, but short of determinations made through lengthy lawsuits, there is no legal mechanism to prove and correct it. Even when a zoning ordinance has been found to be exclusionary and directly violates the federal Fair Housing Act, it can take decades for this to make its way through the courts and result in more affordable homes.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Other states have laws and systems that, while imperfect, at least make sure that some affordable housing gets built everywhere. Details and exact mechanisms vary, but all have three basic steps. First, the state provides municipalities with targets for housing development and/or, in some cases, affordable housing specifically. Second, municipalities have a chance to meet these targets in a locally determined way, often with state support through affordable housing financing or streamlined land-use review requirements. Third, if they don’t meet – or have a realistic and timely plan in place to meet – these goals, there are either judicial or administrative means of overriding the development restrictions and exclusionary zoning in place.

For instance, New Jersey allows developers to petition to build denser housing than zoning would otherwise allow if this housing contains an affordable component. It’s past time for New York to put a system like this in place and take a proactive approach to setting and enforcing local affordable housing targets.

A statewide approach like this strikes the correct balance between regional needs and local autonomy. It’s making sure that local zoning actually does what it’s supposed to do: plan for orderly growth to meet both local and regional needs. Having housing targets still lets municipalities find their own way to enable this housing to be built, as long as it actually happens.

This doesn’t need to just mean building more large apartment buildings. Things like encouraging accessory dwelling units or letting McMansions convert to two- or three-family homes can also help add more affordable housing opportunities.

This type of statewide system is not a perfect remedy for either segregation or affordability. California still has a severe housing shortage, despite having local housing targets. New Jersey’s system has been continually litigated since the 1970s. But it undoubtedly helps. Compare Nassau County to Bergen County, the most affluent New York City-adjacent county in New Jersey. While it only has about 70 percent of the population of Nassau County, it has 68 percent more apartments that rent for less than $1,500 a month. Here, out of the 70 townships and boroughs that control their own land use, all but one of them have at least some housing renting for under $1,500, and only nine have less than 50 units of it. The same pattern holds true across New Jersey. Every municipality in the three New Jersey counties with even higher incomes than Bergen (Hunterdon Morris, and Somerset) also has at least some housing renting for less than $1,500 a month.

Because of the system New Jersey has in place, municipalities are far more likely to actually build multifamily and affordable housing, instead of finding excuses for why they can’t. And this has other effects as well – Bergen has 15 percent less overcrowding than Nassau, the median rent is $223 lower, and 41.6 percent of renters pay more than 35 percent of their income in rent, compared with 47.1 percent in Nassau – even though the median income in Nassau is higher. All of these indicators are lower than Westchester and Suffolk counties as well.

Making sure suburbs build more affordable housing isn’t just good for the region; it’s good for the neighborhood. Right now, exclusionary zoning in many New York suburbs prevents health aides and caregivers from living near the elderly, teachers from living near their classrooms, and emergency responders from living near the communities they serve. It prevents the elderly from staying in their town when they want to retire to a smaller home and children from staying when they grow up. Many towns on Long Island are finding that the lack of affordable multi-family housing means losing out on younger residents – a major reason why, in 2015, CityLab characterized Long Island as “dying.”

New York City can lead by example. It has its own share of areas that prohibit affordable housing through zoning; over six square miles of the five boroughs within walking distance of the subway or commuter rail only allow large single-family homes. One can’t credibly argue that Great Neck needs to build more housing but Little Neck doesn’t.

Building more homes is the beginning, not the end, of making housing in the region more affordable. But, especially in the suburbs, it’s where we need to start. New York state should step in and make it happen.

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Moses Gates
is the vice president for housing and neighborhood planning at the Regional Plan Association.
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