With affordable housing among New Yorkers’ most pressing concerns, could Hochul’s failure to advance her proposed “New York Housing Compact” in the Legislature be partly to blame?
The failed negotiations reveal some hard truths for pro-housing advocates who had hoped to mitigate the state’s current affordability crisis.
The Democratic supermajorities controlling both houses saw lots of downsides.
Until that changes, the crisis will persist.
What are those downsides?
Hochul’s Compact would have boosted housing production in New York City’s suburbs, by overriding local planning boards that limit most land to single-family detached homes.
Constructing cheaper housing types, like accessory dwelling units and garden apartments, would have allowed more of the lower-earning people who work in affluent suburban counties to actually live there.
However, suburban workers who would like to live near their jobs typically vote where they now live – in NYC.
This contrasts sharply with rural and suburban voters who are affluent homeowners paying top dollar to live in communities where everyone is much like them.
These voters depend on the people who watch their children, draw their blood at the doctor’s office, or bag their groceries.
They just don’t want them as neighbors, or for their property taxes to pay for educating essential workers’ children.
Suburban politicians will give their voters what they want, lest an electoral competitor promises it to them instead.
And the suburbs have become, after the most recent court-imposed redistricting, the focus of what, in New York, is rare general-election competition between Democrats and Republicans.
Democrats are determined to recapture the four congressional seats, two in Nassau County and two in the Hudson Valley, that they lost to Republicans in the 2022 election, as well as legislative seats in the same areas.
That’s going to take priority over equitable housing policy – even if this is an issue Democrats have traditionally favored.
In New York City, rather than limiting local control over land-use decisions, the Housing Compact wisely proposed to increase it.
State law currently limits how large New York City’s zoning can permit residential buildings to be.
This means Albany can prevent obsolete Manhattan office buildings – many made surplus during the pandemic — from being replaced with badly needed apartment buildings that are just as large.
State law also specifies that the city can’t convert offices into housing unless the building existed in 1977.
That’s a long time ago and wastes the potential of vacant newer buildings.
These restrictions had the paradoxical effect of turning some Manhattan legislators into vigorous defenders of state overrides.
They responded to well-funded, politically savvy “preservationist” groups who could easily back Democratic primary challengers if they don’t get their way.
These folks clearly love having big-city amenities – they just don’t want to share those benefits with newcomers.
The common thread here is stopping change, at least in the physical sense.
It’s likely that none of the balking legislators cares one way or another about where land-use regulatory power should ultimately sit within the New York government.
What they care about is electoral success.
Upstate Republicans are keenly interested in the New York City region growing as much as possible so the Legislature can redistribute its tax revenue to poorer rural counties.
This is why they might have been expected to unite with more enlightened Democrats to get some version of housing reform over the finish line.
Unfortunately, not in New York. Upstate Republicans won’t deny their party its best chance of keeping the seats it has and gaining more in the suburbs.
Democrats are scrambling to figure out how to get those seats back – and affordable housing is being sidelined as a consequence.
Generational succession may help, because the struggle over housing reform essentially pits older homeowners, who benefit from rising home values, against frozen-out younger newcomers.
But current state housing policies incentivize all but the highest-earning young adults to move out of state, where housing is cheaper almost everywhere.
Thus, the struggle continues.
The crisis in New York City and its suburbs won’t go away until an expanding housing supply can satisfy demand.
No one should want the alternative, in which the region becomes a dystopia of glittering wealth contrasted against substandard housing for essential workers and increasing homelessness.
New York desperately needs a political path forward.
Perhaps Hochul can reverse her polling trend by forging it.
Eric Kober is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His latest report is NYC’s Housing Crisis: Next Steps After “New York Housing Compact” Fails.