Speaking on January 10 before the crowds gathered in the Assembly chamber of the capitol building in Albany, New York’s 57th governor looked into the cameras.
“Housing is a human right,” said Kathy Hochul. Applause drowned out her next sentence and forced her to wait before continuing her State of the State speech.
Housing is not actually guaranteed in the New York State Constitution written in 1777, upon which the United States Constitution is based. In fact, if one had no property then one was not permitted to vote. If the framers had wanted every indolent indigent to have a house, they would have let them vote. The pursuit of life, liberty and happiness is vouchsafed, but property ownership requires something extra. Money.
Where did her excellency get the idea that housing was a human right? During her address, Hochul described her own family’s humble origins. “My family started married life in a trailer park,” said Hochul. “On my dad’s salary, they eventually moved to an upstairs flat. Tiny, but it held a few other kids.”
The family moved to Cape Cod. Her father changed jobs, and the success of her family “unfolded to the progression of homes they could afford.”
Her parents were activists back in the Sixties, she said. A lot of marches. A lot of protests. “And they volunteered for an organization called Housing Opportunities Made Equal, which had just started back then,” said Hochul. “And I assure you that where I lived, it was a very controversial thing to do.”
She noted that her parents said that everybody had the right to live where they wanted, and that equal access to housing was a must for a society to reach its full potential.
“Today I’m proud to introduce the New York Housing Compact,” continued Hochul. “A groundbreaking strategy to catalyze the housing development we need for our communities to thrive, for our economy to grow, and our state to prosper.”
Meeting the goals
She described a broad menu of policy changes to achieve the goal of building 800,000 new homes over the next decade. She took aim at local land-use policies, which she characterized as the most restrictive in the nation. She took particular issue with the enormous power wielded by local communities, some of which she said utilized unreasonable zoning codes to block growth.
“Between full bans on multi-family housing and onerous zoning and approval processes, they make it difficult to almost impossible to build new homes,” she said. “Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Putnam. Each county granted fewer housing permits per capita than virtually all the suburban counties in Massachusetts.”
That all the counties she mentioned have commuter train tracks was no coincidence. Under the governor’s compact, municipalities with MTA rail stations will be compelled to re-examine how they do things. More will be expected of them.
“It’s part of my compact. Any municipality with the train station,” said Hochul, “will rezone the area within a half-mile to allow for the creation of new housing within the next three years.”
New York, a state with a population of 19.8 million and 8.5 million housing units, has built just 400,000 houses over the last decade. The compact sets clear expectations for the housing growth required to meet the governor’s goals in all municipalities across the state.
“Today I say no more delay, no more waiting for someone else to fix this problem,” she orated.
Every downstate locality with access to mass tarnsportstion will have to increase its housing stock three percent every three years. Every upstate locality will have to increase its stock by one percent every three years.
While some larger municipalities like Albany are already surpassing these goals, exurban, suburban and rural municipalities are finding it more difficult.
The City of Kingston in the most recent census reported 10,643 units of housing. It would have to build 36 new units each year to keep up.
“Local governments can meet these targets any way they want,” said Hochul. “They can shape building capacity, they can redevelop old malls, old buildings, office parks, incentivize new-housing production, or just update the zoning rules to reduce the barriers.”
The state will offer $250 million in new funding for infrastructure of the kind expected to support growing communities: schools, roads and sewers.
If the process of new housing stock is found to be dragging, the governor suggested that the state would preempt onerous local regulations. “When communities have not made good-faith efforts to grow, when proposed housing projects are languishing for no legitimate reason, the state will implement a fast-track approval process because doing nothing is an abdication of our responsibility to act in times of crisis,” she said.
Specific relief from environmental review will be an option on the table as a tool to expedite rezoning and the development of new housing.
After three years, localities that do not meet growth targets or do not take steps to implement preferred actions that meet particular affordability criteria but may not conform to existing zoning may take advantage of a fast-track housing approval process.
Whether this polixy is just a cleverly disguised filip to developers made under the rubric of the housing crisis or not, the business of building housing is poised to reap a generous windfall for years to come.
With the governor’s attention focused on the creation of quantity, there seems not much dedicated to vouchsafe affordability. There is, however, at least one new offering, a sort of cap-and-trade incentive for the production of affordable housing.
“Without an incentive program like we have with 421a in New York City, we cannot meet the demand for housing,” said the governor. “Without it, developers are only building condominiums or building elsewhere, which is absolutely not the result we need to meet our housing goals.”
A 421a tax abatement functions much like a Payment in Lieu of Taxes [Pilot], lowering property taxes for ten or 15 years as a reward from building affordable housing.
Under the governor’s compact, affordable units will be assigned extra weight in calculating localities’ progress toward their goals.
A previous $25-billion comprehensive housing plan announced in last year’s State of the State address, proposed to create or preserve 100,000 affordable homes across New York, including 10,000 units with support services for vulnerable populations, plus the electrification of an additional 50,000 homes. Hochul had called that plan “the single largest housing investment in our state’s history.”
That initiative created a New York City public housing preservation trust, allocated $25 million for eviction prevention and making sure vulnerable renters had representation in court. invested $539 million in a homeowner assistance fund, and made $100 million in rent supplements available.
In the long, slow pursuit of housing as a human right, the question will always be who can afford it.