Opinion: Floor area limits are hindering affordable housing development

The state’s Multiple Dwelling Law needs to be fixed by Gov. Kathy Hochul and the state Legislature before the end of the session.

The San Reno building along Central Park.

The San Reno building along Central Park. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It’s clear New York needs more affordable housing, including more housing that is equitably distributed. Over the years, both New York state and New York City have encouraged the development of affordable housing through direct and indirect subsidies. The city has also sought to facilitate housing development by eliminating unnecessary and costly zoning requirements as well as by expanding incentive zoning programs that allow for the development of larger buildings in return for providing affordable housing either on or near a project site.

But the city’s power to use its zoning laws to promote affordable housing is constrained by state law – including, significantly, the state Multiple Dwelling Law’s arbitrary, outdated and unnecessary floor area ratio limitation of 12.  That means the amount of residential floor area on a lot designated for development cannot exceed 12 times the area of the lot or, for example, that a 5,000-square-foot lot cannot be developed with more than 60,000 square feet of floor area.

This limitation dates back to about 1960, when it was adopted concurrently by New York City (through its amended zoning resolution) and New York state (through amendments to the Multiple Dwelling Law). It is said it was based on the idea that larger residential buildings led to overcrowding, with its associated health hazards and burdens on urban infrastructure.

We’ve learned a few things since then about the value of density. We’ve seen significant changes to the city’s demography, including its average household size, and we’ve been the beneficiaries of improvements to housing conditions through other laws. As a result, the current floor area ratio limitation is a relic that ties the city’s hands in implementing sound land use policy – and in particular, expanding both in size and geography its use of zoning to create affordable housing.

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s initial budget proposal included an amendment to the Multiple Dwelling Law that repealed this vestige and, in doing so, would have given New York City a new and important tool to address its affordable housing needs. Repeal should have been a no-brainer because it would directly encourage additional affordable housing in the city’s central business districts – where it would strengthen mixed-use communities, allow more people to live closer to where they work and increase economic integration. Sadly, it was not a no-brainer.

Just as in the past, those opposed to repeal sought to roil the political waters by raising the fear of massive, out-of-scale apartment buildings run amok and unraveling the fabric of the city’s neighborhoods. Their concerns have no basis in reality.

Repeal of the Multiple Dwelling Law floor area ratio limitation would not by itself permit development of residential buildings with floor area ratios that exceed 12. Before buildings could take advantage of the repeal, the city would have to complete a planning process, draft appropriate amendments to the zoning resolution and undertake thorough, rigorous and transparent public and environmental review processes. The numerous opportunities for public input would ensure that the result is both thoughtful and balanced.

Residential buildings with a floor area ratio exceeding 12 would be limited to areas in which those ratios are already permitted – the Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City central business districts – where both the built context and city planning policy encourage larger and denser development.

Increases in floor area ratios do not inexorably lead to supertall buildings. Sound planning policy relies on a comprehensive kit of regulatory tools to define the size and shape of buildings – including requirements for yards, lot coverage controls, height limits and mandated setbacks from the street. In the case of virtually every recent rezoning, consideration of these controls would be part of any rational planning process involving higher residential floor area ratios.

Finally, history tells us that residential buildings that have a floor area ratio over 12 are good neighbors and can be among those rare and exceptional buildings that make their neighborhoods (and our city) special. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine New York without the 12-plus floor area ratio residential buildings that are a part of the city’s urban fabric – buildings like the beloved Beresford and San Remo along Central Park West, both individual landmarks, and One Fifth Avenue in the Greenwich Village Historic District. This rich history contradicts the claim that repeal of the Multiple Dwelling Law’s floor area ratio limitation would overwhelm our neighborhoods.

The overwrought prophecies of disaster resulting from the repeal of the Multiple Dwelling Law’s floor area ratio limitation do not withstand objective analysis. Simply put, there is no downside to repeal. Removing the limitation offers the city an exceptional opportunity to implement a sound, well-considered plan to increase its affordable housing stock and ensure economically integrated, mixed-use communities in its higher density neighborhoods. The governor should make sure that it is one of her housing proposals, and the state Legislature should vote to approve it before the session ends.

Paul D. Selver is a partner and co-chair of the Kramer Levin land use department and Meenakshi Srinivasan is a senior land use and zoning adviser in Kramer Levin’s land use department.

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