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Op-Ed: Hochul Renews Assault on the Suburbs


By Dennis Saffron

For 60 years sophisticates have sneered at the suburbs (and at the suburban-adjacent New York City “outer boroughs”). Especially the "little boxes made of ticky-tacky" where the middle and working classes - once championed by “progressives” - have sought the American dream.

Think Levittown, and Queens. The suburbs are passé, the enlightened tell us, and must be “retrofitted” to make them look more like … well, cities. New York Times columnists lecture us to "Quit Fetishizing the Single Family Home" and "fantasizing about having a backyard,“ and that "the new 'Dream Home' should be a condo."

In legislation introduced last year, New York Governor Kathy Hochul went all-in for “retrofitting” of the burbs: by adding “Accessory Dwelling Units” (ADUs) to parcels now zoned for single-family use, and usurping local zoning to mandate “Transit Oriented Development” (TOD) near rail stations.

Hochul shelved that plan in response to election-year opposition. But now, reelection in hand, she’s back with an even more aggressive TOD proposal. And she’s trying to sneak in ADUs too – subsidized with taxpayers’ money – as part of a radical plan to override local zoning in localities that fail to meet state-imposed “targets” for new development.

Last year’s TOD bill would have required municipalities on Long Island and in the northern suburbs to permit construction of “at least 25 units per acre” within a half mile of transit stations. This year’s bill applies to the City as well, and doubles the ante to 50 units per acre – the equivalent of a four-story apartment building – in these “transit zones” in or within fifteen miles of the City (with declining density requirements for areas further away).

The new developments would be exempt from environmental review, and local governments would be barred from requiring developers to provide parking for all the new apartments.

A half-mile may seem like a small distance but in most affected communities it would extend well beyond the small commercial areas adjacent to rail stations and into the heart of residential neighborhoods. And since rail stations in the City and nearby suburbs are frequently less than a mile apart, the half-mile-radius zones would often overlap. Thus maps of the areas affected in Queens and Nassau look like tornado paths rather than isolated dots.

The keystone of Hochul’s housing package is an even more radical “New Homes Targets and Fast-Track Approval” bill that would supplant local zoning in any municipality, or New York City community district, that did not meet three-year housing growth targets of three percent downstate and one percent upstate.

Those that failed to meet their targets would be stripped of their zoning powers to approve new developments – unless they voluntarily gave up these powers by enacting two of five “preferred actions” significantly curtailing their authority.

One of these “preferred actions” would be the passage of a local ADU law virtually identical to the one that would have been required by last year’s Hochul bill, authorizing “at least one” ADU on each single-family lot.

Such ADUs would include basement apartments and “backyard cottages.” So your neighbors could rent out their basement, or build another little house in their backyard.

Other “preferred actions” allowing localities to retain limited zoning powers would include splitting residential lots into two, and various “up-zonings” increasing density.

Would the impact of all this on neighborhood infrastructure and quality of life be justified by an increase in affordable housing? A recent study found that, without further subsidies to offset “the high rents that result from the value of their public transit access, TODs are generally unaffordable for low- and moderate-income households.”

Studies of ADUs in California similarly suggest that they may have little effect on affordability – not surprising, as they are market-rate units in middle-class areas where demand is high.

Still, modest allowance of some ADUs for family members, and of small TOD zones immediately adjacent to rail stations, could have a positive impact – so long as this is done by or in consultation with local communities rather than by Governor Hochul’s blunderbuss assault on home rule. And so long as it maintains the essential single-family, low-density nature of the suburbs, which – the sophisticates notwithstanding – remains the dream of tens of millions of Americans.

“Housing advocates” who design such proposals must understand that, after sixty years of sneering, the suburbs are suspicious of their intentions.

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Dennis Saffran, @dennisjsaffran, is a local lawyer, writer, and graduate of Harvard College and New York University Law School. He was formerly chief counsel of the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal, and is a vice president of the Douglaston Civic Association. This article is reprinted from Real Clear Politics.

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