Opinion: New York needs an ‘all of the above’ approach to affordable housing development

Social housing, developer tax abatements, Good Cause tenant protections, building on state-owned land, accessory dwelling units – we need them all!

A protester holds up a sign during a rally and “sleep in” outside Gracie Mansion on November 16, 2023.

A protester holds up a sign during a rally and “sleep in” outside Gracie Mansion on November 16, 2023. Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

It will come as no surprise to readers that New York City is facing an affordability crisis. 

According to a report released last spring, half of all households in New York do not have earnings that meet the cost of living. Of those households living below the True Cost of Living, 79% paid more than 30% of their income towards housing. There is no way around it; New York is too expensive, and in particular, the rent is too damn high. 

This problem is not new. Decades ago, my own family was priced out of being able to afford to rent or own a home in New York City. After facing harassment from several terrible landlords, they moved out of state and then finally to the west coast to chase one dream: a home they could afford. 

Many of our well-to-do New Yorkers will tell you a myriad of reasons why families are leaving our great city: taxes or crime. The truth of the matter is, the families fleeing our city are mostly middle class, and they are leaving because there is nowhere for them to live. 

The New York state government has a responsibility to change that. 

In 2023, Gov. Kathy Hochul proposed a package of legislation to address the affordable housing crisis. The New York Housing Compact aimed to build 800,000 new homes over the next ten years. 

Unfortunately, the state Legislature and governor did not reach an agreement on housing. 

While I did not agree with every component, especially the lack of tenant protections, I did support most of the governor’s proposal, and I agree with her that one of the best ways to drive down rents is to increase supply. According to New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the city’s vacancy rate has reached a historic low of 1.4%. That means that when people need to move, there is nowhere for them to go; and as a result landlords are taking advantage to drive up rents even further. With more people moving to New York every day, the situation is not sustainable. It’s econ 101: with too many people trying to find apartments and not enough supply, prices go up. 

So how do we increase supply? There are policies we could put in place right now that would open up new housing almost immediately. To name a few: convert existing, unused office space to affordable apartments; utilize state-owned sites like the former Bayview Correctional Facility for new housing development; and legalize accessory dwelling units, like basement apartments, which already exist across New York City and could be a source of housing supply, particularly in the outer boroughs.

After the short-term solutions, next on the list is building more and building everywhere. In a city and state where construction is notoriously expensive, developers are choosing not to build – and certainly not to build rental housing that everyday New Yorkers can afford. To encourage developers to build the housing that we need, the state must pass a new tax incentive. We must also extend the existing 421a projects’ deadlines. 

The 421a program, before it was allowed to expire, accounted for 68% of new buildings that included at least four units across the city between 2010 and 2020, according to the NYU Furman Center. Its affordability requirements meant that of the homes created, half of studios and roughly a third of 1BR units that were built using the subsidy were considered affordable, and open to low-income households. 

Now that 421a has expired, it is time for the state to move forward on a new tax incentive that must go much further than 421a ever did. With affordability requirements, the state can spur new building that will mean more apartments, and thus lower rents. 

The final 421a agreement must require a living wage for the New Yorkers who are actually doing the difficult work of building our new homes. The workers who build our city need to pay their rent too, and the development we so desperately need will never come to pass without a reasonable agreement with labor on a real prevailing wage, not the peanuts that the Real Estate Board of New York has offered so far. 

These are short- and middle-term solutions that will ease the strain New Yorkers are feeling today, and plan for an affordable future in the next decade or two. What about beyond that? How do we keep New York from getting in this situation again? 

We need to be innovative. We need to think outside the box. We need a Social Housing Development Authority. My colleagues, Assembly Member Emily Gallagher and state Sen. Cordell Cleare, have proposed new legislation that would create a state agency to build and maintain affordable housing, which would stabilize the housing market and prevent crises like the one we’re in now. The Social Housing Development Authority builds on the experience of other municipalities around the country, especially in Montgomery County in Georgia, where public agencies were able to still build during an economic downturn. As I said during my campaign for the office that I now hold, we need more Penn Souths – homes where middle class families can live near their mothers, cousins and grandparents in an adjacent building. That sense of community is what makes New York the best city in the world. 

All of these solutions will ease the strain on the rental market, but supply is not the only problem plaguing New Yorkers when it comes to housing. Evictions shot up after the pandemic-era moratorium expired, and the drastic rise in rents in recent years is driving people to leave the city to look for greener, and cheaper, pastures. We have no hope of solving the affordability crisis until we pass Good Cause protections. The benefits of increasing the supply of housing will take years to have an impact, so in the meantime, we must protect tenants in place by blocking unconscionable rent increases. Until we can stem the tide of people being forced out of homes they can no longer afford and build the next generation of affordable housing, New Yorkers will continue to struggle to attain the most basic of needs, housing. 

I am an eternal optimist. I believe that New York can and must lead on the housing crisis. The Empire State has an opportunity to create an economic boom, with tens of thousands of well-paying construction jobs as well as housing for every New Yorker. Failure to take action is not an option.