How Hochul Plans to Build Hundreds of Thousands of Homes Near Train Stations

The governor’s proposal for “transit-oriented development” has so far gotten a mixed reception from suburban legislators, who killed a similar plan last year.

Sam Mellins   ·   February 2, 2023
Hochul projects her plans will lead to 800,000 new homes in the next ten years. | Office of the Governor

Announcing her budget proposal this year, Governor Kathy Hochul put New York’s housing stock under the microscope. Her diagnosis: There isn’t enough of it, particularly in New York City’s outer boroughs and suburbs.

“I believe that a safe, affordable home should not be out of reach for New Yorkers, and yet it is,” the governor said while introducing her budget proposal Wednesday. “The whole objective is so families can stay in New York, kids can raise their own families where they grew up, employers don’t have to worry about whether or not there’s going to be employees in a community.”

Her proposed cure would amount to New York state’s most dramatic zoning reform in at least half a century. She projects her proposal will lead to 800,000 new homes in the next 10 years, almost double as many as would be produced if current trends continue.

Her two most far-reaching proposals would require every area in the state to commit to a certain amount of growth in the overall housing supply every three years, and require areas in and near New York City to allow more housing near train stations. 

“We have invested in the MTA’s world class commuter lines, we’ve connected more people to jobs, we’ve created thriving downtowns, and that’s why it makes all the sense in the world to build more housing in those areas,” she said on Wednesday.

Hochul’s budget proposal did not include two longtime progressive housing priorities: a law known as “good cause eviction” to entitle most renters to renew their leases with only modest rent increases, and rental vouchers to help homeless New Yorkers afford permanent housing.

Many housing policy experts cheered the supply proposals, as did some environmentalists. Climate activists tend to support “transit-oriented development,” the name planners use for housing clustered around mass transit stations, because it can limit sprawl and reduce people’s dependence on cars.

“It’s just a no-brainer in a state that has more transit capacity than any other state in the nation,” said Vicki Been, the faculty director of the Furman Center, a housing think tank at New York University. “We need the housing, we need people on the trains, and we need to reduce emissions. It’s a win-win-win.”

HOW MUCH HOUSING local governments would have to allow near train stations would depend on how close they are to New York City.

The city itself, along with the suburbs within 15 miles of its border, would be required to allow at least 50 housing units per acre in the area within half a mile — or a 10-minute walk — of subway and train stations. That would equal up to 25,000 units of housing within that 10-minute radius, though simply rezoning to allow that much housing doesn’t mean it would all be built.

That would likely mean low apartment buildings throughout these zones, or taller apartment buildings paired with single-family housing. Large stretches of eastern Queens, the northern Bronx, and Staten Island near subway or train stations do not currently allow apartment buildings.

This change could spark local opposition. But New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who has pledged to get 500,000 homes built in New York City in the next decade, praised Hochul’s plan, and said that it “advances key components of our shared housing agenda.”

It’s just a no-brainer in a state that has more transit capacity than any other state in the nation.

Vicki Been, the Furman Center

Nearby suburbs would be required to make significant changes, too. Scarsdale, an affluent suburb that falls in the 50 units per acre zone, reserves essentially all of the land near its train station for single family housing on large lots. Hochul’s plan could increase the number of housing units near the train station by ten times or more.

Towns further away would face progressively less strict requirements, down to 15 units of housing per acre near local train stations in towns more than 50 miles from the city (Amtrak stations are not included). That lower target could be reached with groups of rowhouses or duplexes.

The lesser requirements could still prompt big changes. The vast majority of land around the four train stations in Huntington, the 200,000 person town in Suffolk County, currently allows as little as one house per acre. Those areas would likely be required to rezone for 30 units per acre, which would require a combination of rowhouses and low apartment buildings.

Massachusetts enacted a similar law last year. But that measure was less ambitious, only requiring towns near train stations to allow 15 units per acre in 50-acre plots.

Towns like Scarsdale and Huntington often fiercely resist new housing. 

In December, Huntington Town Councilmember Sal Ferro introduced a resolution that would have made it easier to get a permit to create basement apartments in single-family homes. It had majority support on the five-member town council, but after local outcry, Ferro shelved the resolution and canceled a planned public hearing.

READ MORE: The Rent Is Too Damn High. Blame the Suburbs.

“That was extremely frustrating,” said Hunter Gross, president of the Huntington Township Housing Coalition. “What’s their plan? Because you can’t just continue to ignore the demand.”

Another major plank of Hochul’s housing proposal would require that downstate localities grow their total housing stock by three percent every three years, and upstate localities by one percent every three years. This would also apply in New York City, where each community board would be required to hit the three percent target.

That measure incentivizes affordable housing construction by allowing localities to double count affordable units when measuring housing growth. The transit-oriented development proposal, by contrast, doesn’t distinguish between affordable and market rate housing.

THESE PROPOSALS NEED to pass the legislature to become law. Last year, heavy opposition from suburban lawmakers, especially Democrats on Long Island, helped kill similar measures just weeks after Hochul proposed them. In last year’s elections, though, several of the Long Island Democrats in the legislature were swept out of office by a red wave in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

New York Focus spoke with seven Democrats in the legislature whose districts would be affected by the plan. One opposed it, four expressed concerns without opposing it outright, and two said they support it. 

“I cannot support proposals that would circumvent local input and control over housing development,” Senator Kevin Thomas, a Democrat who represents part of Nassau County, said in a statement.

Senator John Liu, a Democrat who represents a part of northeastern Queens that includes several Long Island Rail Road stations surrounded by mostly low-density housing, said Hochul’s proposal might be overly aggressive. “You'd have to be calling for demolishing thousands of homes in order to make way for her plan,” he said.

He said that he would support some form of transit-oriented development, but that it should require some of the housing to rent below market rate. “We need more housing, and specifically more affordable housing,” he said. “The details for her proposal clearly need a lot of work.”

READ MORE: Republicans Won Big on Long Island. So Did Affordable Housing.

Senator Pete Harckham, a Democrat who represents some Hudson Valley suburbs, said that some constituents have expressed opposition to the plan, and he’s still weighing whether to support it. Last year, Harckham sponsored a bill to allow homeowners to create secondary apartments on their properties, and he plans to reintroduce a similar bill this year, he said.

Assemblymember Charles Lavine, who represents part of Nassau County, said he’s still examining the details of the proposal. He supports some state role in promoting housing on Long Island, he said, since “Long Island lags behind almost every other national suburban community in terms of housing development,” and many local governments “have done everything they can to inhibit development.”

And Assemblymember Steve Otis, who represents the Long Island Sound coast of Westchester, said he supports increasing housing supply, but voiced concern about the specifics. 

“You really cannot do this appropriately just with a one-size-fits-all, preempting the local planning process,” he said. He noted that some towns in his district have already been doing transit-oriented development, and said that the state should provide financial support for those efforts.

But two Long Island Democrats voiced full-throated support.

“I think it’s awesome,” said Assemblymember Kimberly Jean-Pierre, a Democrat who represents the town of Babylon in Suffolk County. “I think developing transit oriented downtowns is great for our young professionals.”

Jean-Pierre was lukewarm on Hochul’s proposals last year, but supports the current plan because “it allows a little more local control,” she said.

Assemblymember Phil Ramos, a Democrat who represents the Suffolk County town of Islip, also said he supports the plan.

Senator Brian Kavanagh and Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, the chairs of the legislature’s housing committees, generally support Hochul’s plan, but they also want it to include measures to help tenants afford rent, some of which Hochul has opposed in the past.

“I was glad the governor brought up the need for a lot more housing,” Rosenthal told New York Focus. “Her plan is very long term. I’m also concerned about what happens this year and next year.”

READ MORE: Some Suburbs Are Actually Trying to Solve the Housing Shortage

Tenant advocates slammed Hochul for not including policies to help renters afford rent and avoid eviction or to produce housing not controlled by market forces.

“It’s really important that housing production come with social housing rules, deep capital investments, and affordability restrictions,” said Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator of Housing Justice for All.

But Weaver did express some sympathy with Hochul’s goals. 

“The governor is correct to diagnose a problem of restrictive zoning among local governments, especially in New York City’s suburbs,” she said.

The most prominent outright opposition thus far has come from suburban Republicans. Nassau County executive Bruce Blakeman, a Republican, said on the Brian Lehrer Show that Long Island already suffers from “overcrowding and terrible traffic issues,” and that Hochul’s plan would “jeopardize the suburban character” of Nassau county.

Moses Gates, an urban planner at the nonprofit Regional Plan Association, said that such fears are an exaggeration. “New Jersey has little town centers in a lot of places. Nobody thinks Mercer county isn’t the suburbs,” he said.

This article was updated after publication with a statement from Assemblymember Charles Lavine.

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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