Across the New York City suburbs, a thicket of local zoning laws thwarts the building of all but the most expensive single-family homes.
In some parts of Scarsdale, in Westchester County, new homes must be built on lots of at least two acres. In most parts of the village of Muttontown, on Long Island, new homes must be at least 2,000 square feet. The town of Oyster Bay, also on Long Island, requires that some guest apartments, known as accessory dwelling units, be occupied only by family members or domestic servants.
These zoning laws are among the most restrictive in the country. They severely limit the state’s housing supply, making the entire region less affordable. And they are rooted in Jim Crow.
For much of the 20th century, towns surrounding New York City used a stomach-churning mix of racial covenants and restrictive zoning laws to shut out Black Americans and others considered undesirable from thriving suburbs. The federal government supported this system in myriad ways, including by denying government backing for mortgage loans in Black neighborhoods, a practice known as redlining, which hardened segregation and sharply restricted the ability of Black Americans to secure mortgages and buy homes. After World War II, the government greatly expanded its role in residential segregation by backing large suburban developments across the United States like Levittown, on Long Island, on the condition that they exclude Black buyers.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 made racial discrimination in housing illegal. But communities were still allowed to enact and maintain zoning laws that had the same effect. By this time, prices had risen, and the generous postwar federal subsidies that made it possible for white Americans to buy suburban homes — but which had largely been denied to Black Americans — were no longer available. Even if a suburb might no longer be allowed to overtly ban Black families, limiting development to large and expensive homes could achieve a similar goal.
As a result, the tighter zoning laws became associated nationally with increased racial segregation, as well as a diminished housing supply. In just one measure of the region’s pain, more than half of renters in New York City and its suburbs are paying one-third or more of their income on rent.
Over many decades, these laws have helped make the region among the most racially segregated in the United States. Now they are choking New York, making it impossible to build the housing the region needs to grow.
From 2010 to 2018, Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester Counties issued a combined total of just 26,175 building permits in a region of about 3.8 million people, according to an analysis of federal housing and census data by the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan group.
During the same period, the suburbs in Massachusetts issued 54,787 permits, more than double what suburban New York did. Suburbs in the Bay Area of California issued 63,290 permits. The Northern Virginia suburbs outside Washington, D.C., issued 76,786 permits. All three regions are smaller in population than New York City’s suburbs.
Gov. Kathy Hochul this year is making the first serious attempt by a New York governor since the 1960s to challenge the nearly total control that localities in the state have been allowed to exercise over housing. Her proposal would require New York towns and cities in the metropolitan region to increase their housing supply by 3 percent every three years and, importantly, allow the state to override local zoning laws to approve projects in towns that refuse to meet those goals. Each of New York City’s 59 community districts will have the same 3 percent target, and New York State towns outside the metropolitan region would have a 1 percent growth target every three years.
The legislation doesn’t require a specific kind of housing to be built but would incentivize the construction of affordable housing by allowing localities to count double all developments that have income maximums for renters or buyers, making it faster to achieve a locality’s goal. The proposal would also require New York City and its suburbs to rezone areas immediately surrounding subway or commuter rail stations to allow for greater housing density.
Despite an immediate outcry from suburban leaders, the measures being advanced by Ms. Hochul and others in the growing movement for housing across the region aren’t radical ideas.
Massachusetts requires towns to allow multifamily housing near transit centers and imposes penalties for those that fail to do so.
In 2021, California essentially banned single-family zoning. Two years earlier, Oregon did the same for cities with populations of 10,000 or more. These changes are meant not to destroy the suburbs but to allow them to grow.
But Ms. Hochul’s housing proposal takes political courage in New York, a Northern state whose zoning laws largely escaped the reach of the civil rights movement. For years, the suburbs have faced lawsuits accusing them of violating the Fair Housing Act. In suburban New York, local zoning control is king and has been used to jealously guard access to some of the best public amenities in the United States, including public services, swimming pools, beaches and especially schools.
The last time the local zoning laws were challenged by a New York governor was in 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In the wake of that murder, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller tried to racially integrate the state’s suburbs, said Noah Kazis, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan Law School who has extensively studied New York’s zoning policies.
At the time, Mr. Rockefeller called the effort a “true memorial to Martin Luther King,” according to an account in a report by Mr. Kazis on New York’s zoning laws for the Furman Center, a housing policy research group. Eventually, facing fierce resistance from the suburbs, the state backed down.
Already, opposition to the effort to finish that work is taking shape. Mayors and county executives in Westchester and on Long Island, where the state has poured billions of dollars into regional transit systems in recent years, have had the audacity to respond to these long overdue proposals by blustering about the importance of local control.
“The ramifications of this proposal to our village are enormous and quite frankly incomprehensible,” Mary Marvin, the mayor of Bronxville, a Westchester hamlet a few miles north of the Bronx, wrote on Feb. 14.
The Nassau County executive, Bruce Blakeman, in an interview with Politico warned of a “suburban uprising.”
No responsible public official can ignore the difficulty of finding a home in the region. Middle-class families, single young professionals and aging residents of all races are being shut out of the housing market.
These New Yorkers will have to make their voices heard, along with the elected officials who represent them and the business community invested in seeing the region’s economy continue to grow. The time to build more housing is right now.
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