Housing is ultimately the emergency from which many others flow; street homelessness, the oversaturation of city shelters, the financial precarity of many New Yorkers, population declines and many other issues are downstream from the unavailability of housing and the elevated cost of the housing that there is.
Some of that has to do with utilization of the existing housing stock, and there has been much valid hand-wringing over the fact that tens of thousands of affordable apartments sit empty for myriad reasons including the cost of renovation and, yes, some sheer landlord avarice. Yet if every single one of these units could be put on the market, it would make only a small dent in the total level of need because, at base, the problem is simply that not enough apartments exist for the demand, a problem that has compounded over years as construction has consistently lagged behind projected need. That, unfortunately, does not seem likely to change under the current status quo, with one report saying construction has actually slowed recently.
Hardly anyone in Albany will dispute the scale or contours of this crisis, and yet we’re about a week out from the end of the legislative session with very little to show for it on housing. It’s not for a dearth of ideas; as we wrote earlier this year, Gov. Kathy Hochul, known as a relatively calculating politician, unveiled a comparatively transformative and ambitious housing agenda at the start of budget season, with the stated goal of building 800,000 homes across the state over the span of a decade.
We encourage you to read that edition for a more detailed breakdown of the plan’s planks and specifics, but to summarize, it took into account the way that the insularity and intricacies of local zoning and redevelopment, particularly in urban-adjacent suburban areas, have blocked efforts to enable the volume of construction that was needed. Hochul’s plan therefore wrested some of this local control away, instead striking a balance by setting benchmarks and goals for housing construction while giving localities flexibility to implement these goals as they saw fit, while mandating compliance. Failure to comply would let the state essentially leapfrog recalcitrant local officials and jumpstart projects on its own.
I wrote at the time, rather optimistically, that the plan recognized that the state had a “compelling interest in remedying the problem across the board and is both less subject to the whims of organized local opposition and NIMBYism.” The problem with that, which I didn’t fully take into account, was that Hochul first needed to get this through the State Legislature, which is chock full of those suburban and exurban legislators who absolutely hated the idea that the state could enforce compliance with top-down housing objectives. They closed ranks fast, holding press conferences with comically misleading pictures of high-rises next to little suburban homes despite the fact that, for many localities, the mandates would have required adding just 50 or fewer units over three years, often clustered around transit. The plan, after all the fanfare, was dead.
For their part, progressives have been more focused on an effort not necessarily to build more housing but to keep tenants in their apartments via a push for so-called Good Cause eviction. The legislation, despite its controversy, is relatively simple: it would restrict the circumstances under which a landlord can evict a tenant, setting situations like rent nonpayment or lease violations as acceptable reasons for eviction, including through denial of a lease renewal. Currently, landlords can decline to renew a non-stabilized lease for any or no reason, meaning that even tenants who have lived in a unit for years and complied fully with the terms of the lease can be forced to leave.
Versions of Good Cause have been passed locally in a few counties, but have faced several court defeats, which has led housing advocates to focus their efforts on state legislation, which they’ve been pushing for in some form or another for years. Unsurprisingly, landlord groups united against the measure, arguing that it would make it too difficult to exert control over their properties and saddle them with “forever tenants,” a term that itself reflected the broader debate over whether housing is fundamentally a right for the tenants who need it or a commodity for the landlords who own it. Hochul was careful not to oppose the Good Cause approach in principle outright, but left it pretty clear that she wouldn’t be a booster, and the legislation didn’t make it into the budget. Advocates are continuing to push for it, including with an odd paper plane protest, but its chances are looking grim.
That means the biggest-ticket housing-related proposals in this year’s sessions seem to be dead, and rents just keep going up. So did the Legislature really come and go while doing nothing to address perhaps the state’s most pressing quandary? Well, not quite: there are a few smaller-bore proposals that are still percolating and could, maybe, make it over the finish line.
One is a simple return to an earlier policy that, while not particularly far-reaching, arguably contributed to most of the affordable housing construction in the state over the last 10 years. That’s the 421-a tax break, a program that, broadly, gave developers tax breaks in exchange for including affordable housing units in their properties. It was hated by progressives and some fiscal hawks for costing the state billions of dollars in tax revenue, even as it played a hand in the development of the majority of the city’s affordable housing stock in recent years. Hochul had proposed a tweaked version of it ahead of the program’s expiration last year, but that plan was rejected by the legislature and the tax break has stopped. It’s possible that it might make a return in the last days of the session.
Also in contention is a regulation called the Floor Area Ratio, or FAR, which is meant to limit density basically restricts the total square footage of a building to a multiple of the floor area of the lot it’s built on, currently a factor of 12. So, if a building is on a 7,000-square-foot lot, it can itself only have up to 84,000 square feet of floor space. That restriction was put in place in 1961, after a number of buildings with much higher ratios had already been constructed, but since then the FAR has basically given buildings the choice between being particularly tall or particularly wide, but not both (that’s part of the reason all those hideous matchstick-looking supertalls have gone up in midtown). Assemblymember Deborah Glick introduced a bill to get rid of the FAR while enacting new affordability restrictions, but that seems to have hit a dead end.
Some lawmakers are also pushing for more of a focus on residential conversions, i.e. taking the persistently empty office buildings in newly desolate business districts and turning them into housing. Some of those are already going forward (in fact, the country’s largest conversion is taking place in the old offices of the New York Daily News), but observers have argued that the state’s existing efforts on this front have fallen far short and are pushing for a more concerted effort, including more state subsidies.
All in all, there are some concrete proposals on the table for Albany to get something done on housing between now and the end of next week. For all our sakes, let’s hope they get to it.