Some Suburbs Are Actually Trying to Solve the Housing Shortage

New York suburbs have long lagged their peers in building new housing. A few towns are eyeing a different approach.

Sam Mellins   ·   October 25, 2022
Everybody wants to be next to a nature preserve, not everybody wants to be next to an affordable housing project. | Luis Villasmil

The New York City metro region is in the grips of a dire housing shortage. Rents and home prices are skyrocketing, and evictions are rising. A major factor fueling the crisis is that New York suburbs build less housing than almost any of their peers: In the 2010s, New York’s suburbs in the Hudson Valley and on Long Island built three times less housing per capita than the city’s New Jersey suburbs, thanks largely to restrictive zoning regulations.

But in some suburbs, there’s increasing appetite for that to change. In Long Island’s Suffolk County, and in the upper reaches of the Hudson Valley’s exurbs, a few municipalities are considering steps — some big, some small — to build more housing.

The most dramatic of these efforts is in Kingston, the city of nearly 25,000 people about 100 miles north of New York City, which is entirely rewriting its zoning code to address the city’s housing crisis.

Kingston home prices and rents have soared in recent years, yet the city has built new housing at a snail’s pace, permitting just six units per 1,000 residents in the past decade. Compounding the problem, hundreds of units have recently been converted to Airbnbs or other quasi-hotel services, taking them off the market for locals.

Long Island and Westchester build housing at some of the lowest rates of any suburban area in the country, fueling high rents and home prices across the region.

In response, Kingston is seeking to enable the creation of new housing stock through a citywide rezoning that will eliminate nearly all single family-only housing zones in the city; abolish parking minimums, which frequently limit space available for housing; and place restrictions on short-term rentals like Airbnbs.

This is a dramatic departure from the city’s current zoning plan, which requires single-family housing in many areas in the city, requires two parking spaces per unit of housing, and imposes no significant limits on short-term rentals.

The rezoning will create “a more vibrant, denser, easily navigated community, while preserving the historic feel of this small city,” said Anthony Tampone, a housing activist who pushed for the rezoning as part of the group Kingston Code Reform Advocates.

“What would previously have been a single-family zone, now you’re allowed to do things like small multiplexes, corner stores, carriage houses,” he said.

The plan has wide support on the council, and is expected to pass when it is brought to a vote, likely early next year.

“The current zoning setup falls short in many ways. The overall approach that’s being proposed seems far more rational and community-friendly than the current one,” said Kingston Common Councilmember Carl Frankel, a Democrat who supports the plan, pointing to how it would streamline the process for homeowners to add secondary accessory units to their properties.

And while upzoning and tenant protections are often framed in contrast to one another, Kingston lawmakers view them as complementary: Earlier this year, the city became the first New York municipality north of Westchester to implement rent stabilization, a change which will cap yearly rent increases on about one in ten of the city’s housing units.

When Minneapolis pursued a similar rezoning to Kingston’s in 2018, results were underwhelming, as only a few dozen new medium-sized buildings were constructed in its wake. Bartek Starodaj, who is spearheading the rezoning initiative as Kingston’s director of housing initiatives, said Kingston’s plan is more ambitious.

“Minneapolis didn’t change minimum lot sizes or density requirements. We are taking that comprehensive approach with our rezoning,” he said.

Local housing affordability activists are broadly supportive of the rezoning plan, but hope to see its final version go further in restricting Airbnb and other short-term rentals, and requiring larger developments to have more affordable units.

The current plan would require mid-size buildings to make one in 10 units available to people earning 80 percent of the area median income. It would also ban new conversions of houses into short-term rentals if the owner doesn’t live in them, but allow existing short-term rentals to remain.

For the Many, a progressive Hudson Valley political group, is pushing to bump up the affordability requirement in the new code to two in 10 units, and hopes to see existing short-term rentals banned entirely in properties with absentee owners.

“We want to see current stock be freed up for use by long term residents and see the prices go down as a result of that,” said Brahvan Ranga, For the Many’s political director. “We also think that the 10 percent affordability requirement is woefully inadequate.”

Asked how recently sentiments in favor of more housing began to spread in Kingston, Starodaj pointed out that the office he holds was only created in 2020. The rezoning process kicked off in November 2021.

Starodaj hopes that the plan will serve as a model across New York.

“We can be a leader and show other communities what’s possible,” he said. “We’re not the only ones in the state with a housing crisis.”

Tax the Hamptons?

Long Island’s East End, home to the tony Hamptons and the bucolic North Fork, is also struggling with a severe housing shortage.

That might seem incongruous to many New Yorkers who see the East End’s five towns as the place that New York City’s rich flee to in summer to relax at their second homes.

But for the roughly 100,000 year-round residents, record-high home prices and a dire shortage of affordable housing are an existential threat. Schools are struggling to hire teachers and staff. Residents with medical emergencies have to wait over an hour for EMTs because local teams can’t find volunteers. Even the 1 percent are feeling the effects, as the lack of housing for working class people in the Hamptons means that ritzy boutiques and restaurants struggle to find workers who live within commuting distance.

“We need to start moving in the direction of taking care of people in our community,” said Mike Daly, founder of East End YIMBY, a group that advocates for housing construction and affordable housing. “It’s all fun and games until you can’t get your lobster salad.”

On November 8, locals will vote on one proposed response: a half-percent tax on high-value home sales. The money would go to a fund reserved for affordable housing projects or financial assistance for first-time homebuyers.

If all four towns holding referendums approve the tax, it would likely raise at least $20 million a year, according to Assemblymember Fred Thiele, a Democrat who represents the East End in the state legislature and sponsored the state law that created the referendums. Towns could also increase the amount of cash immediately available by borrowing money backed by future tax revenues.

“If this passes it will be the most important tool in the toolbox that towns have for affordable housing and allow them to increase their efforts by a factor of three or four,” said Thiele, who chairs the Assembly’s local government committee.

Referendums will be held in East Hampton, Shelter Island, Southampton, and Southold. The town of Riverhead was eligible to hold a referendum, but the town board declined to, arguing that Riverhead is already building enough affordable housing.

Governor Kathy Hochul signed Thiele’s bill in October 2021. That was a departure from her predecessor: The legislature passed a nearly identical bill in 2019, but then-Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed it over opposition to new taxes.

There’s no public polling on the referendums, but Shelter Island resident Elizabeth Hanley, who plans to vote yes, thinks there’s broad support for them. “I’ve given out nearly 200 ‘Vote Yes’ yard signs and put in an order for another 100,” she said.

Still, some locals are opposed, and discussion at public meetings can be intense. “I actually won’t do community housing meetings unless there’s a court officer there because it’s been so volatile,” Hanley said.

Shelter Island resident Bob Kohn, who plans to vote no, told New York Focus he’s concerned about Shelter Island’s limited supply of freshwater and that new residents could add to the tax burden.

“You don’t want to have much more [housing] on Shelter Island because of the nitrate [contamination] and the water problems that we already have,” Kohn told New York Focus. (Shelter Island residents draw all of their water from wells. The town’s current housing plan, published in September, cites lack of fresh water as a factor that will limit further development, but not prevent it entirely.)

Still, Kohn said, Shelter Island will benefit if the other towns — which are connected to Suffolk County’s water system — vote yes.

A colorfully dressed referendum supporter works to get out the vote. | Courtesy of Mike Daly

If the referendums pass, zoning could still create an obstacle to affordable housing construction, even with the additional funds. The East End, like much of the New York metro region, has zoning codes that make it difficult to build the kind of dense housing that allows maximum affordability.

Local governments can grant exemptions to specific projects, but are often reluctant to. In September, the town board of Southold rejected a zoning change that would have allowed a 24-unit affordable housing development to move forward. In Southampton, the fate of a proposed 60-unit affordable housing development is in doubt amid fierce opposition from local residents. In Sag Harbor, locals are currently suing to block a planned development that would include 79 units of affordable housing.

Thiele said that it’s up to the towns to make those calls. “What this referendum does is provide towns out here with a revenue source, but towns still have to make zoning decisions,” Thiele said.

“Everybody wants to be next to a nature preserve, not everybody wants to be next to an affordable housing project.”

More Accessory Units

A soon-to-be-introduced proposal could provide a small boost to the housing stock of Huntington, the town of 200,000 in Suffolk County.

In 2019, the Huntington Town Council banned homeowners from creating secondary accessory housing units in their basements, citing safety risks. Now, a bipartisan majority of the five-member council is moving to reverse that measure, allowing basement accessory units if they meet the town’s stringent building requirements.

With nearly 2,000 currently registered accessory units, Huntington is more permissive than some other Long Island towns that entirely ban accessory dwellings, such as Long Beach.

Allowing basement units wouldn’t dramatically change the housing landscape. Huntington’s accessory dwelling unit bureau said that they don’t have precise numbers on how many accessory unit proposals were rejected after the basement ban, but Town Councilmember Joan Cergol estimated that the town turned away 30 to 40 people in 2019 after the ban took effect.

“There were many people who were devastated that they couldn’t create an accessory unit in a basement that would have otherwise complied with the state code,” she said.

Accessory units will still have to abide by strict requirements: They must be attached to the main dwelling on the property, no larger than 650 square feet, and have at least three parking spaces, and a $550 permit must be renewed each year.

“It’s a delicate balance of opening up opportunities for accessory units while also maintaining the quality of life in the neighborhoods where they are constructed. Parking is always an issue,” Cergol said.

Last year, a proposal from Governor Kathy Hochul would have allowed homeowners anywhere in the state to create accessory dwelling units without requiring permission from local governments such as Huntington’s, though local governments would still have been able to set size limits and other standards.

Cergol said that that proposal went too far.

“It concerned me because it was really going to change our neighborhoods, and right now our accessory dwelling unit program is working,” she said. “I understand that we need to expand affordable housing, but what was being proposed was a one-size-fits-all approach.”

After intense pushback from suburban elected officials, Hochul shelved the proposalabout a month after introducing it. Thiele, the East End assemblymember, said that based on discussions between his office and Hochul’s, he expects her to introduce a new proposal promoting accessory units when the legislature reconvenes in January. (Hochul’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

The proposal will likely offer incentives for homeowners to add accessory units, rather than mandate that towns allow them to, Thiele said. Last year, he introduced a bill to provide forgivable loans of up to $75,000 to fund construction of accessory units, one model of how an incentive program could work.

“It’ll be a more cooperative version with the state providing incentives,” Thiele said. “If that doesn’t work we may need to take further steps.”

Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
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