Opinion: New York finally has momentum on housing and it’s time for a breakthrough

We need a comprehensive statewide strategy that sets clear expectations for where and how much we need to build.

New construction rises on the waterfront of the East River in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and Hunters Point, Queens, around Newtown Creek, with the Manhattan skyline in the background.

New construction rises on the waterfront of the East River in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and Hunters Point, Queens, around Newtown Creek, with the Manhattan skyline in the background. Alex Potemkin – Getty Images

New York’s politicians are waking up to our state’s dire housing crisis. Anemic construction of new homes from Brooklyn to Buffalo is driving prices to historic highs, and millions of New York renters are on the edge of losing their homes. The politics of housing are shifting for the first time in decades as elected officials have voiced support for pro-housing reforms that would’ve been dismissed out of hand just months before. But we need more than fiddling around the edges of our broken housing system and dated land use laws; we need a housing breakthrough.

Housing in New York has become so unaffordable that it is impossible to ignore. Rents in already famously expensive New York City have reached mind-bending new records, and the vacancy rate for inexpensive homes is almost zero. But the crisis doesn’t end at city limits; the lack of housing in New York’s major suburbs is also a major contributor to soaring rents in the nation’s largest metropolitan area. NYU’s Furman Center found that “New York’s suburbs are failing to build any significant amount of housing,” as Long Island permitted barely 3,000 new homes per year over the last two decades, while Westchester and the Hudson Valley permitted under 5,000 new homes per year. 

The consequences have been disastrous for New Yorkers. A majority of tenants in the New York metropolitan area are rent burdened, which means they spend more than a third of their income on housing. As a result, New York leads the nation in the number of renters seeking to move out of state. 

The solution has always been straightforward in principle: build more housing. The details of when and where to build this housing, whether it should be subsidized or market rate – and how to prevent displacement, gentrification, and the erosion of communities – have always been contentious, often to the point of paralysis. But now, the scale and severity of New York’s housing shortage have overwhelmed objections. Under the weight of crushing rents, it’s becoming good politics for elected officials to get to yes on housing.

This year, New York City has seen a series of high-profile neighborhood land use disputes that generated plenty of sound and fury – and most passed in the end. From Queens to the Bronx, thousands of new units have been approved by the City Council and Mayor Eric Adams. These disputes follow a similar pattern: a proposal for new housing development is met with resistance from local elected officials and a vocal minority of opponents, followed by a highly public politicized negotiation that leads to concessions. In the end, some new affordable and market rate housing gets approved, and the local electeds take credit for securing a good deal for their constituents.

The past year’s housing victories amount to a drop in the bucket of what’s needed. We won’t solve the housing crisis with one-off projects. To really make a difference, we must think bigger.  

New York needs a holistic approach to addressing housing opportunity that puts rapidly increasing supply at the center, while simultaneously protecting existing tenants, fighting housing discrimination, and growing the government’s long-term capacity to provide better models of housing stability. A breakthrough on housing creation will improve the leverage of renters, increase housing stability, and create more options and opportunities for those seeking to move within, or to, New York. 

We do not need to reinvent the wheel. New York City has plenty of models from which to draw inspiration. Boston doubles New York City’s rate of new housing permitted per capita, while Washington, D.C. triples it. Tokyo builds new housing three times faster than New York City, and Paris builds as much subsidized social housing in a year as New York City builds in total housing of all kinds.

Similarly, New York state lags badly behind California, Massachusetts, Florida, Illinois and even neighboring Connecticut and New Jersey when it comes to state level land use reforms. In these other states, local governments were barred from refusing new housing, or were issued housing creation goals that they needed to meet lest they face state intervention. Meanwhile, New York’s localities have no obligation to create housing. Often, the wealthiest and most exclusionary locales are the worst offenders in resisting building new homes, shifting the task to lower-income areas with less political power. Statewide and citywide goal setting, backed by the power to intervene in local decisions, mitigates this inequity. 

Put simply, we need a breakthrough on a comprehensive statewide strategy that sets clear expectations for where and how much we need to build housing, with every neighborhood, county, and town playing its part. We need mechanisms to greenlight projects that clearly deserve swift approval, so they don’t get slowed or blocked by political battles or redundant reviews. 

It’s promising that many of our top elected leaders – Gov. Kathy Hochul, Mayor Adams, New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams – have signaled their support for a more equitable and systemic approach to creating housing in New York. There are plenty of ways to get it done. And there are plenty of New Yorkers who are watching their elected officials, and their rent bills, with bated breath. New York can’t afford the 2023 legislative session to be yet another that comes to an end without ambitious, pro-housing reforms that bring us closer to an abundant housing future. Some local politicians have begun to recognize that more housing is good politics, and we hope that leaders in Albany take note. 

Annemarie Gray is the executive director of Open New York, a housing advocacy organization. She previously served as a housing advisor to former Mayor Bill de Blasio and Mayor Eric Adams.