Albany to Suburbs: We’ll Pay You to Build Housing. Suburbs to Albany: No Thanks

Mayors said they aren’t interested in state grants to expand housing. “You can’t dig a hole in the ground for that kind of money,” one told New York Focus.

Sam Mellins   ·   March 23, 2023
“We don’t want to change the laws and we don’t want housing,” said Bellerose Mayor Kenneth Moore. | Illustration: Akash Mehta and Maia Hibbett for New York Focus

BELLEROSE MAYOR KENNETH MOORE hopes that his three adult children who live with him will be able to move out on their own soon.

“Believe me, nothing would give me more satisfaction than if they were to say ‘Hey Dad, we’re moving out,’” he said of his kids, ages 30, 27, and 23. “But they just can’t afford it yet.”

Moore also opposes adding any new housing in Bellerose, where home prices regularly approach $1 million and building new housing has been banned since 1976. With excellent schools and a half-hour commute to downtown Manhattan, it’s a highly desirable place to live — and an exclusive one.

“We don’t want to change the laws and we don’t want housing,” Moore told New York Focus.

Moore’s position — and the fact that it’s shared by many of his fellow suburban mayors — could be a problem for the state legislature, which is counting on buy-in from local governments around New York to solve a severe housing shortage. The legislature’s proposed plan to create more housing relies mostly on giving towns infrastructure grants from a $500 million pool of state cash if they agree to grow their housing by three percent over three years.

“We are behind in creating places where people can live,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins on the Max Politics podcast earlier this week. “We also thought it was a good idea to begin with incentivizing a move towards housing.”

Bellerose, with a population just over 1,000 living in fewer than 400 houses, would be required to add about 10 housing units over three years, according to the Assembly’s proposal. In return, it would be eligible for up to $50,000 in grants. The Senate used the same construction targets but didn’t publish specific numbers on grant sizes.

“We’re fine if we don’t get any money,” said the Democratic mayor of Bellerose, where the median household income is above $200,000. “Honestly it’s not going to make much of a difference for us even if we were to get a $50,000 grant.” Bellerose’s most recent annual budget was about $1.9 million.

Under the Assembly’s plan, local governments would get dramatically different amounts of cash depending on whether they’re cities, towns, or villages. The state’s roughly 60 cities would be eligible for much bigger grants than its hundreds of towns or villages, even if they have similar populations. In Westchester County, for example, the 17,000-person city of Rye would be eligible for up to $4 million in grants, while the 18,000-person village of Scarsdale would be eligible for $150,000.

The legislature’s proposal was a counteroffer to a more aggressive strategy from Governor Kathy Hochul. Her plan would make the three percent growth targets mandatory, with no option for towns to opt out — and the threat to partially override their zoning laws if they don’t cooperate. Hochul and the legislature are seeking to strike a bargain by the time the state budget is due on April 1.

We’re fine if we don’t get any money. Honestly it’s not going to make much of a difference for us even if we were to get a $50,000 grant.

—Kenneth Moore, mayor of Bellerose

Incentive programs like the legislature’s proposal have largely failed in several other states, and several legislators expressed doubt that it would work in New York when asked by New York Focus.

Suburban legislators and local officials still overwhelmingly oppose Hochul’s proposal.

“We’re definitely 100 percent against it,” Moore said. “I like the idea of giving villages and towns the option to address the housing crisis if they want to and if they can.”

PETER BAYNES, executive director of the New York Conference of Mayors, said that “hundreds” of towns around the state would likely participate in the legislature’s grant program, providing a list of eleven examples. Three mayors of those towns responded to New York Focus’s request for comment and said that they support the legislature’s plan.

“It’s not a massive amount of money, but certainly $150,000 is meaningful. We can put that into improving the built environment and public spaces,” said Gina Picinich, mayor of Mount Kisco in northern Westchester.

She said that it would be difficult to hit the legislature’s new housing targets, which would require Mount Kisco to add about 130 housing units over the next three years. “I think that five years is more likely,” she said.

In my village we don’t have the space for it. They can incent me all they want.

—Bonnie Parente, mayor of East Williston

RuthAnn Loveless, mayor of Hamilton, said that Hamilton is “desperate” to add housing and hopes to win grants through the legislature’s program. “In our village, we are going to try to do something no matter what,” she said. “I can’t say that this is the impetus to do it.” Richard Milne, mayor of Honeoye Falls, also said he supports the legislature’s proposal.

New York Focus spoke to three other mayors who all said that they wouldn’t build more housing just because the legislature is offering cash to do it.

“In my village we don’t have the space for it,” said Bonnie Parente, the mayor of East Williston, on Long Island, which could get up to $50,000 in grants in exchange for adding about 25 homes. “They can incent me all they want. Where am I going to put multifamily dwellings? By knocking down someone’s house?”

Parente highlighted the architectural value of the 2,500-person village’s housing. “The homes near the train station are over 100 years old. They existed before the village was incorporated,” she said. “You can’t be suggesting that we knock down historic homes to accommodate Hochul’s wishes.”

Houses near the Long Island Rail Road station in East Williston | Google Earth

Robert Kennedy, the mayor of the 45,000-person village of Freeport, on Long Island’s South Shore, also said the grants wouldn’t change much. At Freeport’s size, it would be eligible for up to $300,000 in grants if it added about 420 homes.

“I don’t think it would make a major difference to us,” he said. “That’s not even one percentage point of my budget.”

Brookville, Long Island, Mayor Daniel Serota, whose village would have to add about 20 units to hit the target, also said he’s not interested.

They really lack compassion. They need to go to church on Sunday or something.

—Pilar Moya-Mancera, executive director of Housing Help, Inc.

“A $50,000 grant to do what? You can’t dig a hole in the ground for that kind of money,” he said. “Our snow budgets are more than that.”

Development potential in Brookville is limited because it doesn’t have sewers, Serota pointed out, and septic tank systems can only support limited housing density.

LOCAL LEADERSOPPOSITION to new housing has frustrated housing activists on Long Island, who see middle- and working-class Long Islanders being squeezed by rising housing costs.

“They are choosing to turn their backs on volunteer firefighters, on nurses, on teachers’ aides, on bus drivers,” said Pilar Moya-Mancera, executive director of Housing Help, Inc. “They really lack compassion. They need to go to church on Sunday or something.”

If the legislature’s proposal becomes law, the towns that will participate will likely be lower-income, since they need the money more, said Jolie Milstein, CEO of the industry group New York State Association for Affordable Housing.

“We don’t want to continue to consolidate poverty and put all the development in the low-income communities,” she said. “Housing in New York City is incredibly segregated. We have to do something dramatic.”

Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, who chairs her chamber’s housing committee, said that the legislature and the governor are still negotiating the housing reform package.

“Some communities don’t want to build no matter what you give them,” she told New York Focus. “We will try to work something out where our communities will build, and where we can protect tenants.”

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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