Hochul wants to build housing on SUNY campuses. How will that work?

State university faculty and administrators are cautiously optimistic about the governor’s proposal to build housing on state-owned land.

Gov. Kathy Hochul delivers remarks at SUNY Chancellor John King’s State of the University address.

Gov. Kathy Hochul delivers remarks at SUNY Chancellor John King’s State of the University address. Darren McGee/ Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s latest housing plan left many in the policy and education space intrigued. During her State of the State address, she brought up a new proposal to build 15,000 new units on underutilized state-owned property, including State University of New York buildings as one of the options – leading some to wonder what that would look like and how it would work. 

Last July, after the state Legislature rejected her ambitious housing agenda, Hochul issued an executive order calling on the state to identify public property that could be used for housing development. In her latest budget proposal, Hochul outlined a $500 million allocation to “unlock development potential” of certain state-owned buildings or properties. 

Like the City University of New York, SUNY has had financial issues recently, raising questions about the continued sustainability of some campuses. SUNY Fredonia and SUNY Potsdam have had to cut programs and rethink staffing due to growing deficits, and some faculty and students fear that the universities may eventually have to shut down. Those fears were heightened after the College of Saint Rose, a private college in Albany, announced last month that it would shut down.

If New Yorkers and students at state universities see housing projects crop up at a dormant science hall, for example, will that help or hurt them?

“I wanna hear more about this proposal, I think it may be a case where some campuses depending on their location and the footprint they have in terms of land, there might be an opportunity for it to be used for some housing,” said Frederick Kowal, the president of United University Professions, the union representing SUNY faculty and professional staff.

Kowal said that faculty and staff could benefit if housing prices fall in college towns and suggested setting aside some of the new housing for SUNY employees. “We know that there are some recruitment and retention issues in terms of bringing in faculty and professional staff, especially at places where the standard of living has become very high and expensive like at New Paltz,” he said. “Perhaps some of that housing could be provided for new faculty and faculty with young families where they may not otherwise be able to take a job at a campus.”

For now, it’s still unclear exactly what the housing initiative will look like. Justin Henry, a spokesperson for Hochul, said that a request for proposals of eligible sites would be released in the coming months. 

Lawmakers said they were also left in the dark about the plan, only learning about it for the first time during the State of the State address. “I have not seen the details of it but I am intrigued and need to find out what they’re looking at,” said Assembly Member Pat Fahy, chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee.

In her budget proposal, Hochul listed SUNY Farmingdale and SUNY Stony Brook as two campuses that could develop housing and community amenities. The proposal would authorize SUNY’s Board of Trustees to develop 8.7 acres of SUNY Farmingdale’s campus and 10 acres of SUNY Stony Brook’s Southampton campus.

Trustees would be able to lease land to a developer for 99 years. In SUNY Farmingdale’s case, the lease would be earmarked for the Farmingdale State Development Corporation with no public bidding process. The leases would be subject to approval from the offices of the Director of the Division of Budget, the state attorney general and the state comptroller. Profits from the lease would need to be used for the benefit of the campuses.

Building housing on college campuses is not an entirely new idea. Broadview, a 220-unit retirement community, opened in December at SUNY Purchase in Westchester County. The housing complex sends the university up to $2 million in annual lease fees and 75% of that goes towards student scholarships while 25% goes to faculty recruitment. 

There was also a push to temporarily house migrants and asylum seekers on SUNY campuses last summer, though public disapproval killed any appetite for the plan. 

SUNY spokesperson Lane Filler said that the state's higher education apparatus does not yet have specific details about how Hochul’s plan will impact its properties. But that doesn’t mean SUNY isn’t thinking about it. “SUNY has a couple campuses that have been working with their local communities to think about housing opportunities, and those campuses are in communication with the Governor’s Office about opportunities to help meet the Governor’s housing objectives,” Filler said in a statement.