Gov. Kathy Hochul announced a $25 billion, five-year housing plan last week intended to create and preserve 100,000 affordable homes in critically short New York, increase construction of new homes and tackle inequities in the housing market.
Hochul’s plan included proposed legislation to require municipalities to allow a minimum of one accessory dwelling unit on all owner-occupied residential zoned lots.
Also known as “granny flats” and “in-law units,” these are small homes located on the same lot as a primary residence, such as a modest apartment over a garage or a basement unit.
Hochul’s press secretary, Hazel Crampton-Hays, said the legislation would “further the rights of individual homeowners to determine how best to use their property, provide homeowners on fixed incomes the opportunity to create additional rental income, helping them stay in their homes, or multi-generational housing to care for elderly relatives and allow municipalities to require necessary health and safety measures for new units.”
Nassau County officials did not share Crampton-Hays’ enthusiasm.
“This proposal that’s being made would actually end single-family housing in New York state,” said Democratic Congressman Tom Suozzi, a former Nassau County executive who is challenging Hochul for governor.
Suozzi went on to call Hochul’s plan a “radical proposal that would take away zoning control from municipal governments, erode local government authority, and end single-family housing across New York.”
Republican elected officials led by County Executive Bruce Blakeman were even less enthusiastic.
“Gov. Hochul has declared war on the suburbs, the environment, local infrastructure, our schools, accessible parking and manageable traffic, among all of the other benefits that go along with the suburban quality of life that we enjoy on Long Island,” Hempstead Supervisor Don Clavin said.
North Hempstead Town Supervisor Jen DeSena said the proposed legislation would “destroy Long Island suburbs” by effectively eliminating single-family zoning.
The heated response to Hochul’s proposal assumes two things.
The first is that there is, in fact, a great demand for affordable housing in Nassau County. The second is that many homeowners would want to add an apartment to their homes. Otherwise, why the great impact?
The question as to whether this would destroy the suburban quality of life is another matter. The large number of adult children coming back to live in their parents’ homes – because they can’t afford their own homes – doesn’t seem to have been a problem up until now.
The lack of affordability can be explained in part by data showing that between 2010 and 2018, Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester and Putnam counties each granted fewer building permits per capita than virtually any other suburban counties in the United States.
This, in turn, can explain the shortage of homes for sale in Nassau and the soaring housing prices that former County Executive Laura Curran said required her to freeze assessments in Nassau for two straight years.
Hence the face of the problem: children moving back into their parents’ homes and the difficulty older residents have moving into small homes in areas where they have lived for many years.
Nassau County’s zoning policies have helped it remain the most segregated large county in the United States.
The New York region has the second-highest level of segregation between Black and white residents in the country, and the third-highest level of segregation between Latino or Hispanic and white residents as well as between Asian-American and white residents.
A recent study by the Furman Center found this was not by accident, that New York has some of the most exclusionary zoning, particularly in Westchester and Long Island.
A study by Newsday blamed Nassau segregation on mortgage redlining, school district boundaries, racial steering, blockbusting and, of course, zoning.
The end product – as witnessed by the bipartisan opposition to Hochul’s proposal – has been very popular with residents. At least those with the wherewithal to live here.
Suozzi was the lone official to say that he supports ideas to tackle housing problems.
He said he supported a blanket “amnesty” program for the tens of thousands of illegally converted houses in New York City – and paving the way for similar action in other communities across the state.
But like Nassau Republicans, Suozzi has said nothing about zoning in the suburbs while expressing opposition to removing at least some zoning decisions from local governments – something that has been done in recent years in California, Massachusetts, Oregon and Utah.
Suozzi and the Republicans are being selective in opposing the state making decisions for local governments and somewhat disingenuous in describing their authority.
Under New York state’s constitution, the governor and the state Legislature can do pretty much what they want when it comes to making local decisions. This was often apparent in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s stepping on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s toes throughout the last administration.
Statewide this can be seen in the 2 percent tax cap that Cuomo imposed on every municipality in New York state.
In Nassau County, this use of state power to help dictate how much local governments can raise in taxes was widely applauded by officials often unwilling to say no to the desires of their constituents.
Unlike Suozzi, the Republican officials did not acknowledge that changes need to be made.
This is not unexpected.
Nassau officials, both Democrats and Republicans, have acknowledged that few young people can afford to buy homes in the county but have often resisted developments that would provide the needed housing.
Developers and architects have said they have been discouraged from building in the Town of North Hempstead by the lack of zoning that permits mixed-used development.
Instead, the developers face the expense of trying to change the zoning on a case-by-case basis. This is an offer many have refused.
When the developers have moved ahead with their proposals, officials have often cited the same arguments faced by Hochul’s plan – the impact on local infrastructure, school population, accessible parking and traffic.
Some residents have said essentially their communities are all full.
All Nassau residents remember how the county lost its hockey team, the New York Islanders, 10 years ago when the Town of Hempstead would not approve a project to transform the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and the area surrounding it into a modern suburban area.
There have been some successes with transit-oriented, mixed-use developments near train stations, including Mineola, where four large apartment buildings were built and the village reaped large financial benefits.
But there needs to be more to change Nassau’s lack of housing, affordable and otherwise. Lots more.
We’d like to think that the opponents of Hochul’s plan share a commitment to downtown development and addressing the county’s housing needs.
If so we’d like to hear their plan not to end the suburban lifestyle in Nassau but to at least change it for the better.