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Who's Afraid of a Little More Housing Density?

Vicki Been and Ingrid Gould Ellen

May 24, 2023

New York can produce many more homes without radically changing neighborhoods

New York can produce many more homes without radically changing neighborhoods

New York State faces a housing affordability crisis. Housing costs are eating up a greater share of already tight household budgets as the rise in median rent in the state has outpaced the growth in median income over the past two decades

There’s little dispute of these facts — or challenge to the need to produce more affordable housing. While housing costs have been high in New York City for decades, the chart above shows that affordability pressures have grown since 2000, both in the city and across the state. And although rents dipped in the early months of the pandemic, they have bounced back to trend. More and more New Yorkers are realizing that their children and grandchildren will be unable to stay in their communities because of high housing costs. Older adults, too, are finding that they have no place to downsize and age in a place near their homes. And many employers are finding that high housing costs are a major barrier to keeping or attracting talent to New York. 

The politics would seem ripe for a bold, new housing plan like the one in Gov. Kathy Hochul’s housing compact proposal. Her plan would have made it easier to build 800,000 new homes over the next decade by allowing more housing density near transit stops, setting targets for production for every local government by region and fast-tracking approvals when localities failed to meet them. Yet the state’s budget omitted any significant housing plans, mostly due to resistance from suburban politicians expressing concern over the changes they would generate in their communities. 

NIMBY politics are notoriously challenging, but pro-housing advocates shouldn’t give up. The conversations taking place across the state are encouraging as is the consensus around the need for more housing. Lessons from Massachusetts, New Jersey and the West Coast suggest that change takes years, even decades, as coalitions are developed, and people come to understand that these proposals do not require radical changes, such as building super-tall apartment towers in leafy suburbs.

‘Gentle’ approaches can yield a lot of new homes without noticeable changes to the physical environment.

It’s natural and understandable that people see their communities as extensions of their homes and fear change. Opposition is often fiercest — or at least more effective — in lower-density, suburban neighborhoods with high homeownership rates. Certainly this has been true in our state, where the number of units permitted per 1,000 residents over the past decade in Nassau, Suffolk, Rockland and Westchester Counties fell far below the permitting rate in New York City and in the suburbs of New Jersey. The suburbs in Long Island and Westchester counties have allowed less housing than counties in the Bay Area and in Southern California, some of the most strictly regulated counties in the country

Lower-density areas in New York City have also effectively resisted growth. As the NYU Furman Center’s State of New York City’s Housing and Neighborhoods in 2022 report shows, the city’s lowest-density community districts cover 45% of the city’s land but house only 28% of the city’s population.

The rate of new housing development in these lower-density community districts has been half the rate of the city as a whole over the past decade. 

These communities should understand that “gentle” approaches can yield a lot of new homes without noticeable changes to the physical environment. One such approach to adding housing to suburban communities and low-density neighborhoods in New York City would be to grant homeowners across the state the right to build accessory dwelling units, as California, Oregon and Vermont have recently done. That strategy could significantly boost the stock of rental housing without marked differences to the built environment. Accessory dwelling units (often called ADUs) can be part of existing single-family homes — say, apartments above garages or in-law apartments — or even small backyard units, mostly hidden from the street. California’s recent mandate that local governments allow ADUs resulted in over 26,000 ADU permits in Los Angeles County between 2018 and 2021, according to a recent paper by Nicholas Marantz, Christopher Elmendorf and Youjin Kim.

In 1998, the City of Houston, famous for its lack of zoning, reduced the required minimum lot sizes for detached single-family homes from 5,000 square feet to 3,500 square feet.

Allowing for duplexes on single-family lots could also add a significant number of units. Zillow recently estimated that allowing just one in 10 lots that are zoned for single-family homes to house two units rather than one would add another 419,000 homes to the New York City metropolitan area.

In 1998, the City of Houston, famous for its lack of zoning, reduced the required minimum lot sizes for detached single-family homes from 5,000 square feet to 3,500 square feet (and as small as 1,400 square feet for developers that provide open space or meet other performance standards), with the goal of allowing more townhouse construction. Nearly 39,000 townhouses were developed in the city between 2005 and 2018, and more continue to be constructed, a recent paper by Jake Wegmann, Aabiya Noman Baqai and Josh Conrad shows. While this number is significant, the modest increase across Houston has not altered the physical landscape of the city’s single-family neighborhoods.

To be clear, the politics aren’t easy. Some New York communities balked at Hochul's proposal to allow ADUs on owner-occupied lots last year. Critics charged that the proposal would override local zoning. But states can and should step in to moderate local land use policies and practices when doing so furthers the broader public interest. In fact, New York stands alone among its peer states in giving its local governments such broad authority over local land use. Virtually every state facing similar housing challenges to New York (Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, California, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Florida) has recently passed state legislation to promote housing development that places some checks on local zoning. 

Progressives were also less than enthusiastic about Hochul’s housing plans, arguing that they encouraged additional housing of all types rather than focusing on affordable housing. But while the state needs more subsidized housing to serve low-income households, it also needs more housing, period. Research consistently shows that adding more market-rate homes helps to moderate price and rent increases

And communities can add more homes through gentle measures. It’s clear that such increases in density are a critical step in addressing the acute housing shortage in New York State. Doing so would increase the number of homes, moderate increases in rent, help to further fair housing, enhance the ability of older adults to age in place and open up low-density communities to more renters, all without dramatic changes to the physical scale or design of communities. 

Going forward, successful proposals will need to show communities that gentle density that fits their needs and their existing landscape can play a major role in addressing the state's housing crisis. Density need not be scary.