New York Daily News Opinion: How New York can build housing

January 19, 2023

New York Daily News – Opinion
How New York can build housing
By Jolie Milstein and Andrew Rein

Solving New York’s housing crisis requires decisive action to catalyze faster development of hundreds of thousands of new homes: Recent analysis by the Regional Plan Association, reinforced by Gov. Hochul in her State of the State, shows that New York State needs to build more than 800,000 more homes over the next ten years to address current needs and meet expected growth.

But efforts to develop housing can be subject to death by a thousand cuts — permitting delays, unnecessary studies, and overly onerous public review directly increase the cost of housing and exacerbate the crisis.

Citizens Budget Commission (CBC) analysis shows that two years of delays, or just putting a project through a rezoning and environmental review, adds $50,000 to $70,000 to each unit. Even after approval, a New York State Association for Affordable Housing member analysis showed that a three-month delay during construction of a 100-unit building imposes a $1.4 million cost — or $14,000 per unit. These hurdles have resulted in woefully inadequate production; CBC research shows that over the last decade, NYC only approved 25 new units per 1,000 residents. That’s 20% of what Seattle and Austin built.

But laudable efforts are underway to fix these bottlenecks. The Adams administration’s “BLAST” task force tackled the unglamorous but critical work of fixing these and other bottlenecks. It just released a report outlining more than 100 steps that the city and state can take to address these issues.

At the top of the list is exempting projects smaller than 200 units from costly environmental review. This is crucial for enabling deeply affordable housing, such as Haven Green, which is still hung up in litigation relating to its environmental review. The report also proposes streamlining the Department of City Planning’s process for private rezonings and moving fire code plan review and inspections to the Department of Buildings, where the rest of plan review occurs. These are crucial and necessary measures.

Adding to the momentum, the City Council speaker’s recently released housing agenda and land use toolkit calls for important reforms, such as district-specific housing production targets and removing the Multiple Dwelling Law’s cap on residential density. It even signals potential support for the city’s Zoning for Housing Opportunity zoning text amendments, an unusual and highly positive sign from the body this early in the process.

However, the city is limited in what it can do on its own. First, it only controls the zoning within its borders, yet the housing market is regional. Many suburbs have outstanding commuter rail access but are highly underbuilt near train stations. This is due to exclusionary zoning that has led our suburbs to produce significantly less housing than our peers, including one-third as much as in the New Jersey suburbs.

Second, the city is bound by state environmental review law, so even important changes to local regulations can only go so far. Streamlining state environmental review requirements, like Hochul proposed, would help unblock development of much needed new housing and bring New York’s land use processes closer to most other states. Amazingly, New York is one of only seven states that requires environmental review for local land use actions. Why not advantage projects with desired environmental and affordability benefits?

Fortunately, the governor and the mayor are on the right track. Their joint “Making New York Work for Everyone” plan addresses many of these roadblocks. For instance, the plan calls for mandated minimum densities near commuter rail stations, a state appeals process for local denial of land use actions, removing regulatory barriers to potential office-to-residential conversions, and reforming the state environmental review law to enable more housing. And the governor has proposed a comprehensive Housing Compact that encompasses all these proposals plus housing development targets for every municipality in the state. This statewide approach is exactly what we need.

The governor and mayor have also proposed removing the arbitrary limit on residential development in NYC. In 1961, the Legislature capped new and converted residential buildings at a floor area ratio (FAR) of 12.0 due to unfounded fears of “vertical slums.” This cap limits housing production and the benefits of zoning changes in some of New York’s wealthiest neighborhoods — many of which are already at or above the 12.0 FAR limit — while also constraining the feasibility of converting outdated post-war office buildings to housing. We need to remove this limit ASAP.

Meeting the ambitious goal of building 800,000 more homes over the next decade will require all these actions and more. For too long, New York has let housing production wilt under the pressure of onerous, inefficient bureaucratic obstacles. Now, for the first time in generations, we can fix that problem — and it is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.

Milstein is president and CEO of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing. Rein is the president of the Citizens Budget Commission.