Housing in the works (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)
Housing has taken center stage in the current budget negotiations in Albany and for good reason: Our statewide housing crisis has become dire, and for the first time in decades, there are many concrete proposals to tackle it.
Discussions about the issue often focus on rents in the five boroughs and how they have reached historic levels, but the crisis does not stop at the city’s borders, nor is the crisis limited to renters. In communities across the state, renters and homeowners are struggling with housing costs, as younger generations are unable to find affordable housing in their hometowns, local governments are unable to hire teachers and firefighters, and seniors must move further away from their families or are stuck in homes that do not accommodate their current needs.
These problems share a common cause: New York has failed to enact a statewide approach for promoting housing growth, providing localities with free rein to make new housing illegal across the state.
But for the first time since the 1970s, the Governor has proposed a framework to plan for sustainable growth in every community. The New York Housing Compact focuses on housing production, aiming to close our housing shortage by encouraging the construction of at least 800,000 homes over the next decade.
Unfortunately, this past week both the State Senate and Assembly proposed major cuts to the Housing Compact that would severely weaken its potential impact. If enacted, their proposals would do little to dent the dire housing crisis; instead, they would maintain the inequitable status quo that we've had for too long. In the face of the first real pro-housing framework that Albany has debated in decades, the Legislature seems to be closing its eyes and hoping the crisis goes away.
In its budget resolution, the Assembly deleted almost every piece of the Compact, including seemingly non-controversial items like enabling outdated office buildings in New York City to convert to housing. The Senate kept the office-to-residential piece, but otherwise, it also nixed all of the Compact’s many tools to encourage new housing growth of all kinds across the state.
In an apparent attempt to save face, the Senate and Assembly included a toothless version of the Governor’s proposal to require every community to grow its housing by a small amount every three years. Instead of imposing even minimal consequences on localities that shut their gates, the Senate’s and Assembly’s versions would try to bribe local governments to plan for housing growth.
While a program like this might sound new, it really just maintains the status quo—towns across New York already receive more money from a variety of county and state sources when they grow, and yet there is still anemic housing growth in the New York City metro region despite rapid economic growth. Similar incentive-based programs in Massachusetts, Connecticut, California, and Washington have failed for decades—particularly in the areas with the least housing growth, most extreme prices, and closest proximity to cities and transit— and there is no reason to think that the Senate’s and Assembly’s proposals will succeed in New York.
The Senate and Assembly included one new and laudable housing initiative, the Housing Voucher Access Program (HAVP), which would provide crucial financial assistance to an estimated 13,760 New Yorkers over the next few years. But as many recent news reports have shown, even New Yorkers who receive these new vouchers may struggle to use them, because there are so few safe and affordable apartments available to rent in New York. While the Senate and Assembly seem to think that the State must choose between policies that support vouchers and policies that support new housing growth, the two in fact need to go hand-in-hand.
As budget negotiations enter their next stage, the Governor needs to fight to keep the Compact strong, while also moving forward with policies in which the Legislature has rightfully signaled interest, such as HAVP and new tenant protections for New Yorkers who live in unregulated housing.
A statewide framework that includes real mandates to end exclusionary zoning practices, encourage housing growth in transit-rich areas, and ensure all neighborhoods do their part to increase housing opportunities is essential for addressing the depth of the crisis and increasing leverage for renters. It is long past time for New York to enact a framework like the Housing Compact.
Andrew Fine is Policy Director for Open New York. On Twitter @andrewdfine.