My City Has a Housing Crisis. Here’s What Would Help.
Rents in New York City are soaring. Even upper-middle-class New Yorkers are finding they are unable to afford to buy homes in the communities they grew up in. Poor and working-class New Yorkers are staring down homelessness. Thousands of eviction proceedings are underway across the state.
There is one straightforward solution: New York needs to build more housing, of all kinds, and fast.
Though America overall is not building enough housing, the problem in New York is especially acute. Over the past decade, New York City issued fewer permits for new housing units per capita than almost every other major U.S. city, including San Francisco, according to a report from the nonprofit Citizens Budget Commission.
There are signs of some progress, at least when it comes to state laws that would make it easier to build in New York City.
The State Legislature and governor appear to have a good shot at moving forward with a law legalizing basement and garage apartments in New York City. If successful, it could protect thousands of New Yorkers who already live in these apartments and encourage other homeowners to rent such units. A proposal to ease the conversion of office and hotel space to housing in New York City also has broad support.
Also promising: Gov. Kathy Hochul has laid out a substitute for 421-a, a tax incentive for developers that expires in June. Though the current program costs taxpayers $1.7 billion annually, a majority of the units it creates are affordable only to those who earn over $100,000 per year, according to an estimate by the city’s comptroller. A proposal from the governor would get New Yorkers a better deal by requiring that units be built for lower-income New Yorkers, among other concessions from developers.
In a highly technical but important effort, Albany may also move to remove onerous caps on the amount of residential housing that developers can build on any given lot in New York City.
These are all steps in the right direction. But it is far short of the regional approach New York needs to increase its housing supply and ease the burden of high rents and housing prices all over the state.
There is much more New York can do to lower the cost of housing in New York City and statewide.
Lawmakers could, for example, expand the measure legalizing basement and garage apartments to the rest of the state. (That idea was scrapped after suburban lawmakers balked, according to people familiar with these conversations.)
A proposal from State Senator Brad Hoylman would limit the ability of cities and towns across New York to use zoning laws to prohibit multifamily housing, allowing more of the sorely needed housing to be built across the state. Measures like these can help dismantle the effects of racist zoning laws that have helped make the New York region one of the most expensive and racially segregated metropolitan areas in the country. Another, more limited measure from Governor Hochul would allow for some new multifamily housing to be built around transit sites in the New York suburbs.
Both measures have died amid fierce opposition from some officials in Long Island. Instead of backing down, Governor Hochul and other New York politicians could make the case to suburban New Yorkers that building more housing in their communities is a step toward not only fairness but also affordability for the entire region. The median sales price of homes in Nassau County has risen 8.5 percent since last year, according to the real estate company Redfin, and 11.3 percent in Suffolk County.
Another important proposal isn’t being seriously discussed at all. Reforming New York City’s deeply unfair property tax system would create incentives for builders to construct large rental housing. Under the current system, the median effective property tax rate on large rental properties is about double the effective rate for condominiums and higher than the rate on one- to three-family homes. In many cases, the owners of brownstones or townhouses in affluent neighborhoods such as Cobble Hill and Park Slope in Brooklyn pay significantly less in property taxes, in absolute terms and as a percentage of their market value, than the owners of properties in the Bronx and Staten Island, which have far lower market values.
Even worse, the biggest residential property tax burden falls on large apartment buildings, where most poor and working- and middle-class New Yorkers live and pay rent. Reducing the taxes on new large apartment buildings can help create more housing by giving developers an incentive to build and invest in these projects. The city’s comptroller, Brad Lander, resurrected calls for property tax reform in a report this month, pointing out that such reforms would largely negate the need for 421-a.
It would be refreshing to see others in Albany and City Hall who together have the power to enact those reforms follow suit.
The housing crisis is also making communities less safe for everyone. Building more housing is part of how we stabilize a deeply unsettled city and deliver vital services — including mental health treatment — to the people who need them.
Turning this around will require the support of all New Yorkers. Wealthier city residents can do their part by paying their fair share of city property taxes. That is the cost a livable city requires. Suburban New Yorkers can begin by considering the vibrancy, diversity and economic growth that increased development can bring to their communities. Politicians in New York can also make clear that generous investments in transit — like the Long Island Rail Road expansion — come alongside affordable housing.
Americans of all backgrounds are being asked to decide what kind of community they want to live in. New York doesn’t have to accept a reality in which only the city’s very wealthiest residents get to enjoy the peace of mind that comes with secure housing.
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