Land use policy reform is on the rise across the United States, as cities and states increasingly acknowledge the benefits of allowing more home types in their communities: greater socioeconomic integration, more vibrant neighborhoods, and a stronger local economy. Minneapolis became the first major city in the United States to eliminate single-unit-only zoning citywide, legalizing duplexes and triplexes across the city in 2018; Oregon soon followed, becoming the first state to do so when it eliminated single-unit-only zoning in its cities in 2019. President Joe Biden campaigned on fair housing policy—a pledge that prompted Donald Trump to make the ridiculous accusation during the 2020 campaign that Biden would “abolish the suburbs”—and his administration has begun to highlight the need for more permissive local zoning.

So far, however, New York has mostly stayed out of this conversation—which is a shame, because the state is in the midst of a severe housing crisis. For example, despite New York City’s popular image as a bastion of progressivism, it is the second-most racially segregated city in the United States. And New York State holds an even more dubious honor as the state with the most Black-white residential segregation in the country. New York’s housing crisis extends to affordability and homelessness as well: as of January 2020, there were over 90,000 people experiencing homelessness in the state, and the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates the state has a deficit of nearly 650,000 homes for low-income New Yorkers. In New York City, 42 percent of renter households paid over 30 percent of their income on rent in 2017, including 23 percent of households spending over 50 percent of their income.

New York’s overlapping housing crises are not an accident. New York is alone among its peer states—coastal states with strong economies and expensive housing markets—in having no state-level mechanism to address exclusionary zoning. Researcher Noah Kazis of the Furman Center at New York University called housing policies in the state, “by some measures… the most exclusionary zoning in the country.” The state’s failure to address these “invisible walls” has exacerbated New York’s residential segregation, increased rents, put homeownership out of reach, and incentivized high-emissions sprawl.

Fortunately, there are signs that New York has finally begun to reconsider its zoning laws, with recent progress being made in both state-level and city-level policies. 

Progress in New York State

Recent efforts to reform exclusionary zoning laws in New York State comprise a mix of standalone legislative efforts and budget proposals, and their effects if implemented would range from extremely gentle changes to the built environment to the more dramatic. The policymakers who have introduced these proposals hail from across the state, and from various ideological wings of the Democratic Party.

Governor Kathy Hochul in her “State of the State” and Executive Budget proposal proposes to legalize what are known as accessory dwelling units (ADUs), such as basement apartments, backyard cottages, or garage conversions, as well as to spur transit-oriented development in communities near transit in Long Island, Westchester, and the Hudson Valley. ADU legalization offers a path to create or legalize diverse home types in every community in the state, providing safe and affordable housing for tenants, extra income for homeowners, and the ability to remain in their community for seniors and people with caretakers. A transit-oriented development policy would allow more New Yorkers to live near transit, by requiring denser and more affordable home types be permitted in those areas, granting them access to major job centers and economic opportunity, growing local tax bases in many places that have seen their population and economies stagnate, and advancing environmental progress by reducing the number of people who rely on a car. 

Governor Hochul’s proposals are the high-water mark in the movement to address exclusionary zoning and further fair housing reforms in New York. Her proposal to legalize ADUs comes a year after a similar effort was introduced in the state legislature by State Senator Pete Harckham and Assembly Member Harvey Epstein—a bill that continues to gain momentum and add co-sponsors in the legislature—and joins a plethora of land use policy reforms in Albany that would have been unimaginable at any point since the 1970s, when Ed Logue received death threats for attempting to take steps to integrate New York state’s suburbs as the head of the Urban Development Corporation.

Governor Hochul ended 2021 with meaningful progress, signing a package of fair housing legislation into law that will clamp down on explicitly racist practices such as “steering” by funding fair housing testing, increasing training for realtors, and raising fines for discriminatory misconduct. This momentum should continue into the new year, as a number of proposals are being considered by the legislature that would regulate local zoning policies and affordable housing production for the first time in decades.

A recently introduced bill from Senator Brad Hoylman, who chairs the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee, would take a number of steps to end apartment bans and allow “missing middle” home types to be built across the state. In addition to allowing up to four homes on a lot, the bill would bar local governments from imposing parking minimums and setting onerous minimum lot sizes, two common mechanisms by which exclusionary local governments can drive up the cost of housing and lock out low-income families.

Another bill, from Syracuse-area Senator Rachel May, is modeled on Massachusetts’s “40B” law, which eases the approval process for affordable housing developments in municipalities that do not already have enough affordable housing available. Senator May’s bill would apply to municipalities where less than 10 percent of the existing housing stock is affordable, and would create an appeal mechanism to ensure that adequate housing choice exists for low-income New Yorkers in every community.

The zoning reform approaches being presented in New York State are complementary, addressing related but different challenges, and so the passage of one of them does not obviate the need for the others. For example, transit-oriented development would have a greater impact in places where it is applied than a statewide “missing middle” bill, but would only apply in a select portion of the state. And because a 40B-style law eases approvals for new affordable multifamily development, it can break down exclusionary walls, but is less suited for the specific needs of a senior who wants to age in place or homeowners seeking extra income than an ADU legalization measure.

Each of these measures, if passed into law, would require oversight and monitoring—capacity that is currently limited at the state level. With greater state-level involvement in famously complex local zoning laws, state agencies will have their work cut out for them to ensure that each municipality’s zoning meets the parameters laid out by any new state laws that pass. In addition, greater state power over land use will carry greater responsibility for housing conditions. Furthermore, the state will need to provide technical assistance, collect data on local and regional production and affordability, and make recommendations on how new laws can be improved if and when they are enacted. These duties could fall in existing offices in the Division of Housing and Community Renewal, the executive branch’s primary housing agency, or the Department of State, which oversees local government services and planning, or be assigned to a new Department of Planning. No matter the location of such work, more investment to grow and empower the staff responsible for these duties will be necessary.

Just as state laws governing local zoning can be adapted from New York’s peer states, so too can enforcement models: Massachusetts’s 40B is governed in part by a state Housing Appeals Committee (which Senator May’s bill also includes a clause to create), while California recently created a Housing Accountability Unit within its Housing and Community Development Agency.

Progress in New York City

At the city level, America’s most populous municipality is also seeing a historic movement in favor of more equitable zoning policies. At the end of 2021, under former mayor Bill de Blasio, New York City’s land use politics experienced a momentous shift when two predominantly white, wealthy neighborhoods—Gowanus, in Brooklyn, and SoHo and NoHo, in lower Manhattan—were rezoned to enable more housing development. A report from Columbia University researcher Lance Freeman and City Council Land Use division staff demonstrated that the Gowanus rezoning “has the clear potential to be a net positive for racial equity, increasing racial integration and countering local exclusionary development trends.” Though the SoHo-NoHo rezoning did not have a similar report accompany it, the patterns that led to that report’s conclusion could hold true in the lower Manhattan neighborhoods as well.

These rezonings marked a reversal of Mayor de Blasio’s previous record on neighborhood rezonings, which until that point had been focused on lower-income, majority-POC neighborhoods, dangling much-needed capital investments to disinvested neighborhoods as incentive for accepting new housing growth. What the mayor’s earlier efforts ignored was that all neighborhoods deserve the investments that richer neighborhoods received despite the fact that some of them actually saw a decrease in housing units in the 2010s. This pattern of inequitable zoning extended further back than just the de Blasio administration: a similar trend occurred under his predecessor Michael Bloomberg, under whom white, wealthy neighborhoods were largely downzoned—a zoning change in which new housing development is barred or disincentivized—while poorer neighborhoods were upzoned to allow new development.

New York City’s new mayor, Eric Adams, has the opportunity to build on the positive momentum of the last year of de Blasio’s tenure and continue the trend of asking high-opportunity neighborhoods to do their fair share in producing the new housing that the city needs. As a candidate, he supported the SoHo-NoHo and Gowanus rezonings and pledged more broadly to rezone wealthy areas for more housing, and as mayor-elect, he floated the possibility of an affordable housing production target that each neighborhood in the city would be required to meet. It will be up to Mayor Adams, now that he is in office, to follow through on these pledges and enact policies to achieve the transformative benefits of housing integration.

Looking Ahead

More equitable zoning reform in New York State and New York City is still in its early stages, and there will be plenty of obstacles to overcome in passing and implementing these policies. Furthermore, there are other housing-related challenges facing policymakers in the year to come, including the end of New York’s eviction moratorium and the emptying of the state’s pandemic rental assistance fund before it met the estimated need. But zoning reform, while not sufficient on its own, can be a key part of the solution to not only New York’s housing crisis but also many of its societal ills, such as health disparities and carbon emissions. For the first time in a long time, there is hope that New York’s land use policies can shift the state toward a more equitable future, rather than exacerbate its inequities.

header image Source: Flickr/ Sightline Institute Middle Homes Photo Library: