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The State of New York

Assembly Speaker Says NY Can Improve Long Island Zoning Laws ‘In Another Time and Universe’

A low-density Syosset must be protected at all costs.

2:21 PM EDT on March 16, 2023

Bucolic Long Island. (Bonnachoven / WikiCommons)

New York is in the midst of an eighty-year housing crisis that has only intensified over the past several years. Reasons abound—a speculative housing market that incentivizes developers to build empty apartments for the superrich, a lack of affordable housing because of that speculative market, the destruction of federal funding for public housing, a collapse in the number of rent-stabilized apartments. We can go on and on, and the underlying causes are endlessly argued about online. 

One thing that everyone involved in trying to solve the state's housing crisis can agree on is that housing development is not being evenly distributed—especially in New York City's suburbs, which are well-served by mass transit, and even more so with several recent massive upgrades to those areas' commuter rail lines. But a series of anti-development zoning laws and covenants, often stemming from the area's racist past, have kept those areas from growing, and Nassau County has been especially fierce in making sure no one can afford to live there. 

After some gestures at addressing the issue last year, Governor Kathy Hochul centered her legislative agenda this year on what she called the New York Housing Compact, a series of incentives and punishments for localities to build more homes, with the goal of building out more than 800,000 units of housing in the next decade. Specifically, Hochul would be able to override local zoning laws if localities refused to build more housing. 

Real estate developers were giddy that the state was going to throw them tons of money to build private homes. The transit-oriented development section of the agenda meant that more housing would be built near train lines, perhaps even on existing parking lots abutting those trains. Long Island politicians reacted sanely to the idea that their local zoning laws could be overridden by the state, understanding that a broader tax base and a more diverse community would keep the local economy strong and allow it to grow. 

Just kidding on that last part! They went absolutely insane. 

Long Island's Klan-adjacent NIMBYism isn't new, and certainly wasn't going to be solved solely by funneling a bunch of money to developers. Still, the zoning-override portions of Hochul's plan was the true heart of it—make localities build or take away their control over land use.

But the response from Democrats in the state legislature has been cold and defensive. Fearing suburban backlash in an area where Democrats got totally wiped out in November, legislators in the Senate and Assembly rejected Hochul's housing plans—the zoning override, the penalties for not building housing, the incentives to build housing next to transit stops—in their budget proposals released this week, most likely dooming the plan for now. The Democrats in the legislature, asked to champion a commonsense plan to give people places to live, decided it just wasn't worth the political price (that again, they actually already paid when they lost big in November because of a made-up crime panic). 

According to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (of Bronx/Westchester), however, that's only in this universe: 

Somewhere, beyond the suffocating confines of this realm, the speaker proposes that there's a better plane of reality, where things like building housing and governing through legislation can be done, and localities can be forced by the state to build new housing. (It's possible that Heastie was thinking of a multi-dimensional location like California, where the state is now taking cities that won't build new housing to court.) Instead, Heastie, as well as his counterpart in the state Senate, has proposed some cash incentives for localities that go along with building new housing. (It's here that I would like to remind Democratic legislators that despite their losses on Long Island, they still held on to their super-majorities in the state legislature—huh!)

Housing advocates are skeptical of this plan. 

"We've seen this fail in almost every other place," said Andrew Fine, the policy director at Open New York, a group pushing for the state to build more housing and lift restrictive zoning codes. "The localities that block housing the most are often the most resourced, and will not take small amounts of money in order to change their behavior."

Building housing is only one part of the equation—the other is keeping New Yorkers in their current homes, something Governor Hochul has largely neglected in her proposed budget. Housing advocates have been supportive of the legislature's proposals on items like protecting tenants from eviction, and offering new housing vouchers for tenant's struggling to pay rent. 

Cea Weaver, the campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All, which focuses on legislative actions that would keep tenant's in their current home, sarcastically observed that the legislature's abdication of the dire need to address zoning means they're marching ever close to robust social housing. 

"If you want developers to build more housing, you need to address zoning," said Weaver. "Whereas when the state builds itself, it has the power to override local zoning laws, so I guess Heastie is saying he wants new model public housing, to which I say great!"

That's probably not what Heastie had in mind. (Speaker Heastie and the governor's office did not return a request for comment.) 

"Legislators are putting their heads in the sand and saying they don't want to deal with this issue," said Open New York's Andrew Fine. "Maybe they'll deal with it in another universe, but in this one, New York has a serious housing crisis."

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