For decades, the middle-class towns of single-family homes that ring many American cities have used zoning laws to ensure they stay much like they looked in the suburban boom after World War II.
Apartment buildings in many places are simply not allowed, an exclusion that — intentionally or not — has historically also kept out people of color.
Facing housing shortages, several states and the U.S. government have tried to break through those barriers with a mix of methods, including giving municipalities homebuilding goals or overriding certain local zoning restrictions.
In New York, one such proposal from Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul has run into howls of opposition in one of the birthplaces of the American suburb. Critics on Long Island, a sprawling expanse of communities home to 2.9 million people, are denouncing provisions that would set growth targets, drive denser development near train stations and sometimes let state officials override local zoning decisions.
“Her plan would flood YOUR neighborhood with THOUSANDS of new apartments” reads one opposition mailing. Others warn Long Island would become New York City’s “sixth borough.” Critics, many of them Republican officials, claim it would strip away local control.
“We’re already a densely populated area. Where are you going to build?” asked Republican state Sen. Jack Martins, who noted his past support for affordable housing as a local mayor. “Are we going to start tearing down single-family homes to put up apartment buildings?”
Hochul’s said her wide-ranging plan to spur the creation of 800,000 new homes statewide has been mischaracterized. It was a sticking point in New York state budget talks this week, with Hochul’s fellow Democrats in control of the Legislature seeking a plan with fewer mandates and more incentives.
New York is following the lead of other states trying to alleviate housing crunches by chipping away at local restrictions on building.
Connecticut, among other things, began requiring cities and towns to allow in-law apartments unless they follow an opt-out process, amid a debate there over whether “exclusionary zoning” rules worsen racial segregation. Oregon and California have passed laws to dramatically curtail single-family zoning, and both states have targets for new housing.
The accusations of government overreach in New York echo claims in some of those other states.
In California, the state filed a lawsuit last month against Huntington Beach, accusing the coastal community of disregarding state laws requiring it to approve more affordable housing and build more than 13,000 homes over eight years. Huntington Beach filed its own lawsuit, claiming the state would override local control “in order to eliminate the suburban character of the city and replace it with a high-density mecca.”
After Donald Trump became president, his administration suspended a rule adopted during the Obama administration that required places receiving certain types of federal funding to analyze housing stock and come up with plans to combat patterns of segregation and discrimination. Trump characterized it as an attempt to abolish suburbs.
President Joe Biden’s White House has criticized “exclusionary zoning” rules requiring house lots to be of a certain size, have ceilings a certain height, and be only for a single family, as tools abused in some place to discriminate against people who aren’t white.
Hochul has cast her plan for New York as an effort to help the state thrive, rather than as a tool of desegregation.
It would give towns multiple paths to meet housing targets. It would have a larger impact in New York City’s suburbs, where three-year home creation targets would be 3%, compared to 1% for upstate areas. The higher goals would apply to Long Island.
If municipalities don’t meet targets, developers could pursue a process in which the state could allow projects to go forward. Another provision would require localities to rezone areas within a half-mile of commuter rail stations unless the area already meets density requirements.
Hochul said too many restrictions on new construction have contributed to sky-high home prices that are shutting out both low-income and middle-class workers.
In Nassau County, the part of the island closest to New York City, home prices rose 31% between 2018 and last year, according to the New York State Association of Realtors. The average home price there is now $679,000. One-bedroom apartments can go for $3,000-a-month.
“I just settled on the fact that I’m going to be living at home with my parents until I move off Long Island because there’s nobody I know who lives outside of their parent’s home on Long Island,” said Erin Curley, 25, of Massapequa Park.
Long Island is the home of Levittown, famous as a model for the modern suburb of affordable houses separated by tidy yards. It also had an early covenant that barred homeowners from renting or selling to people who weren’t Caucasians. Advocates see the legacy of such practices today.
The president of Long Island-based ERASE Racism said while some localities have taken steps to build affordable housing, others maintain the sort of exclusionary zoning and practices behind racial segregation. Laura Harding said they can be “subtle things,” like a local predominantly white town accused of giving preferences to local residents for housing programs.
“This isn’t just about poor, low-income Black people and Latino people, which is what the prevailing stereotype is when you hear ‘affordability,’” Harding said. “This is about everyone who is literally struggling to afford to stay in the communities that they know, or into a new home.”
Housing advocates blame local officials for too often rejecting plans for multifamily housing that would ease that pressure. One prime example is the 146-unit affordable housing development Matinecock Court in East Northport, where ground is expected to be broken this year.
The project was first proposed in 1978.
“It has taken 44 years and many lawsuits,” said Pilar Moya-Mancera, executive director the not-for-profit Housing Help, Inc. “That’s what it takes for Long Island to build multifamily, affordable housing in a white neighborhood.”
Looming in the background on Long Island are gains made by the Republican Party in recent elections. GOP candidates won all four of the island’s congressional contests last year, in a large part by painting Democrats as soft on crime. Now they can also run on zoning and the governor’s proposed tax increase to aid the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates public transit systems in New York City and its suburbs.
“There are many Democrats who think that the current housing proposal, along with an MTA payroll tax, are potential extinction events for their party in local races,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.
A counter proposal from the Senate’s Democratic conference included a more incentive-heavy housing plan that excludes mandatory requirements and overrides of local zoning.
Hochul and legislative Democrats were trying to resolve their differences in negotiations over the budget, which was due April 1. That deadline has been extended into at least next week. The governor has described housing costs as a “core issue” that needs to be addressed.
“I knew it would not be easy,” she told reporters Wednesday.
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