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How to Break Barriers to Build More Housing in New York? Experts Point to Changes

A ground-breaking (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

New York City has an acute housing shortage, with emergency-level lows in apartment vacancies, especially for units affordable to most New Yorkers, and astronomical rents, a homelessness crisis, and halting recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the core of the city’s housing supply deficit is a lengthy and cumbersome land use decision-making process, a bureaucratic maze of local and state regulations combined with political dynamics that have often hampered housing production. The challenges to both housing and economic development, with recommendations for how to overcome them, were newly-examined in a recently-released report from the nonprofit Citizens Budget Commission (CBC).

On Wednesday, CBC assembled government officials and other experts to analyze the major obstacles to achieving needed growth and offer various solutions to tackle housing scarcity and the related pressures it causes. During the morning event held over zoom, nearly 200 audience members heard from CBC report author Sean Campion, New York City Deputy Mayor Maria Torres-Springer, and a panel of current and former government officials and land-use experts.

The panel featured Vicki Been, faculty director of the NYU Furman Center and former deputy mayor for housing and economic development; Dan Garodnick, chair of the New York City Planning Commission and Commissioner of the Department of City Planning; RuthAnne Visnauskas, president and CEO of New York State Homes and Community Renewal; former City Council Member Margaret Chin; Jacob Elghanayan, senior vice president of TF Cornerstone, a real estate development firm; and Michelle de la Uz, executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, an affordable housing developer. Ben Max, executive editor of Gotham Gazette, moderated the panel.

Torres-Springer, the Deputy Mayor for Economic and Workforce Development and former city housing commissioner, spoke about the city’s housing crisis, one on which there is broad consensus, and how the administration of Mayor Eric Adams has begun tackling it.

“I think that this crisis is manmade,” she said. “It is a casualty of institutional failures and a status quo that is calcified by a regulatory environment that costs too much in time and money, a political environment that allows people to say, ‘Well, it's not my problem,’ and a civic environment that too often condones finger-pointing, hand-wringing, and pearl-clutching.”

The solution, she said, requires “a whole-of-society approach.”

CBC identified several issues with the land use-decision making process in its report authored by Campion, ​the organization’s Director of Housing and Economic Development Studies. Among them were that 40% of discretionary land use applications are either rejected or withdrawn, the median approval time for an application is about two-and-a-half years (longer than other comparable municipalities), and that the long approval process increases development costs 11-16%, adding about $67,000 to the cost of each new apartment unit. 

Those issues arise from, among other things, the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), which requires environmental reviews of projects, lawsuits from private citizens that can challenge those reviews, an increasingly complex process of conducting those reviews at the city level, and the local political landscape that incentivizes City Council members to prioritize their short-term interests and local concerns (often of a loud minority) over long-term and citywide needs. 

Referencing shootings in the city, Torres-Springer emphasized that the housing crisis is its own form of “silent violence” that affects New Yorkers. “Far too many people in our city are suffering in silence,” she said. “It is a violence that causes people to make unfathomable decisions about whether to pay rent or to eat, to keep a roof over their heads or to get needed medication. A violence that causes the children, the sick, the elderly to wonder where they are going to sleep at night.”

She laid out some of the efforts that the Adams administration has taken to tackle inefficiencies in housing production since the mayor announced his housing plan in June. She said the administration has launched a Building and Land use Approval Streamlining Task force (BLAST) that is spearheading an effort by 15 different city agencies to examine changes in internal city processes that will expedite the land use review and approval process. She also said the administration is crafting proposals for the State Legislature, which will return to session in Albany in January, and that it will unveil a report on all those efforts “in just a few weeks.”

Among the main items for which the city is seeking state help is a replacement for the expired 421-a affordable housing tax credit, “the loss of which is already creating a decline in applications for new rental housing construction in our city,” Torres-Springer said.

[Read: 'Housing Cannot Be A Privilege': Mayor Adams Releases Highly-Anticipated Housing Plan]

The panelists broadly agreed on the importance of speeding up land-use decision-making and tackling New York’s housing crisis (which extends beyond the five boroughs), including issues identified in CBC’s report. They differed somewhat on what they see as the largest obstacles to development, particularly housing production, in the city.

“We're really trying to control something, in some ways, that is multifactored and many of them are sort of uncontrollable,” said Visnauskas, the state housing commissioner, noting that besides the state environmental review hurdles, housing construction costs and other regulatory costs have also increased. She said that the state is working to expedite the development process to reduce costs, but she did not specify how exactly. 

“The biggest problem from my perspective is that the environmental review and land use process overall makes it easier to opt for ‘no,’” said Garodnick, insisting that the City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) process is “too long and too expensive” and that the city can and will simplify the CEQR manual for developers. He also pledged other fixes within the city’s control to speed up processes, some of which will come from the BLAST process Torres-Springer mentioned.

Garodnick noted the “City of Yes” citywide zoning amendments that Mayor Adams announced a sketch of earlier this year and the Department of City Planning, with other administration partners, is now working to flesh out before entering them into the city’s review process. Among other changes, they will seek to make it easier to build more housing units without seeking special permits.

Been, who was also once the city’s housing commissioner, turned her eye to the difficulty in approving large-scale neighborhood rezonings initiated by the city and said it is essential for city officials to pursue more of them. Been oversaw several such rezonings, all of which are controversial in New York City, under former Mayor Bill de Blasio to varying degrees of success. She pointed to the Furman Center’s 2021 report showing that 25% of multi-family homes constructed between 2010 and 2020 were in such rezoned areas, which only accounted for 3% of the city’s land.

“But neighborhood rezonings are increasingly difficult to get through,” she said, in reference to City Council buy-in. “They represent change and risk while processes like SEQRA privilege the status quo.”

She said the city needs to more closely tie the overall citywide goals of creating housing with those rezonings while also being more transparent and data-driven in how those rezonings are initiated. “We could be asking through a regular review of all of the community districts within the city, which ones are lagging behind in meeting the needs of a growing city,” she said. 

Elghanayan agreed with Been that the city needs to undertake neighborhood rezonings. “As-of-right [development] is clearly what every developer…wants to focus on. So to me, keeping that part of New York's land use process is essential,” he said, in reference to the much-maligned challenges with the discretionary approval system. “I think continuing to expand the…quantum of as-of-right sites through area-wide rezonings is the best way to ultimately build the most housing,” he said. 

He said that every local rezoning is like a “little mini political campaign,” which is easier for larger, well-resourced developers like his own firm than for smaller developers in the city, and “why the citywide rezonings are important.”

Elghanayan also added that one big fix to the system, from his perspective, would be shifting the city's elections to open primaries, which he believes would help local politics better reflect the will of the majority, who often support development projects. He referenced the scuttled Amazon 'HQ2' plan for Queens that his company was involved in as something that succumbed to opposition from local officials but was a job-creating project supporters by the majority of New Yorkers.

De la Uz, whose organization is involved with the Gowanus rezoning passed last year, said the city isn’t doing enough rezonings in high-opportunity neighborhoods, “which predominantly are wealthier and whiter.” And she pointed to a “mismatch” between community perceptions and neighborhood and citywide needs. It takes a lot of effort, she said, for “every-day residents in the neighborhood [to] understand, really, their responsibility, their community's responsibility and obligation to help make the city more equitable, more fair, more inclusive, more sustainable.” 

She later stressed the need for educating local residents, particularly community board members, about the technicalities of the land use process to ensure that their participation in it is more meaningful. 

“I think the biggest thing is really getting the information early on to Council members and to the community so people understand what is at stake, and for the Council member to be able to balance local need and citywide need,” said Chin, citing her own experience in overseeing rezonings in her Lower Manhattan district as a City Council member for 12 years.

Chin also said that City Council leadership has a responsibility to ensure that worthy projects are approved without giving undue power to the traditional practice of ‘member deference’ that allows local Council members to override projects. She repeatedly said it is essential for the Council Speaker and land use committee chair to be involved, to offer help to local members, including resources from the Council’s land use division.

Garodnick, a former City Council member himself, echoed Chin’s perspective. “I think it has to be a balance,” he said. “I think what happens too frequently, unfortunately, is that the local concerns predominate and the citywide concerns get lost in the mix.” 

He said the Council and its Speaker and the mayoral administration should all be able to clearly articulate citywide interests in advancing projects, whether they’re smaller rezonings like the Bruckner Boulevard rezoning in Throggs Neck in the Bronx or larger neighborhood ones like the rezoning of parts of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn or the rezonings around four planned Metro North stations in the East Bronx. 

CBC’s report recommends many potential changes to the land use process at both the state and city levels, and breaks them up into different categories based on how achievable they may be and on what timelines they could be tackled.

It urges the state to amend environmental review laws while setting clear and objective standards for local governments to contribute to housing production. It encourages the city to improve the process of advisory reviews of land use applications, streamline environmental reviews, assess applications based on how they align with larger citywide goals, and create an appeals process for applications rejected by the City Council or require a supermajority of Council members to reject any land use application. 

Visnauskas said there are a “myriad of solutions” that include, besides changes to process, other incentives to encourage production including tax incentives and authorization of accessory dwelling units, for instance. “There isn't really one solution to all these things. We really need five or six tools that communities across the state can be using to get at greater housing production,” she said. Some of those solutions were proposed by Governor Kathy Hochul this year and not passed by the Legislature, but Visnauskas said the governor will likely revisit them next year if she is elected to a full term in November. “I think that economic growth and housing and affordable housing are very core issues for the governor,” she said. 

“I think you'd expect to see housing as a big focus as we go into the governor’s State of the State [agenda in January] and at this moment, we're pretty optimistic and trying to be smart,” she added.

Been said there are key lessons the city can take from other jurisdictions, some of which CBC identified in its report. For instance, objective standards for rejecting a proposed project, allowing affordable housing on previously restricted land, exemptions from environmental reviews in certain cases or protection from legal challenges, and more. 

Garodnick said that along with rezonings and the citywide zoning text amendments, the Adams administration is pursuing other ideas including expanding the types of projects exempt from environmental reviews and streamlining the application process to make it easier for those without significant resources.

“We need to make this easier and more standardized. We want to urge applicants to pursue the simplest set of actions to facilitate their projects,” he said. He said the Department of City Planning is working to make it easier to receive public comment on projects and is working on accurately measuring the timeline of projects. He also floated the prospect of a mobile app “that would allow for the maximum automation” that could help potential land use applicants determine their environmental review requirements without relying on in-person help from DCP.

“The result we hope is that people do not default to ‘no’ and they do not come to that conclusion that this process is too hairy, complicated, long, volatile for them to want to pursue and instead enable for us to be able to move more projects consistent with the public policy through the system,” he said.

Chin disagreed with CBC’s recommendation of an appeals process for developers to potentially override Council decisions. “I think it is a City Council issue…The process should be within the Council,” she said, again stressing the importance of a Council culture of getting projects across the finish line to add needed growth. “The goal is really how you get to the approval process…and to make sure that the local Council member is being supported,” she said.

Watch the full Citizens Budget Commission event here:

How New York Can Improve Its Land Use Decision-Making Process from Citizens Budget Commission on Vimeo.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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