President-elect Joe Biden has a plan for fixing the housing crisis, squarely targeting the shortages, costs, and discrimination that have made it difficult for many people to find a place to live. If he’s looking for a good place to begin this work once in office, he should look no further than the suburbs of the country’s most populous city. According to a new report, overly restrictive land use regulations in New York City’s suburbs have made housing there more expensive, limited, and segregated than almost anywhere else in the country.
The root of the problem is exclusionary zoning, the land use rules that either implicitly or explicitly limit the amount and density of housing that is legally allowed within cities. These rules are set at the local level, and New York’s suburbs have done little to change them, according to Noah Kazis, a legal fellow at New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy and author of the report. “In New York, no statute stops the suburbs from engaging in exclusionary zoning,” Kazis writes.
Kazis also notes that the suburbs have failed to build their fair share of housing. Between 2001 and 2018, just 56,000 homes were permitted in Nassau and Suffolk counties, where 2.8 million people live. Over that same period, just 81,000 homes were permitted in Westchester and the Hudson Valley, where 2.3 million people live. In all but three years over the past three decades, the New York region has built less housing per capita than the San Francisco Bay Area—a region where housing is notoriously out of sync with job growth. The impact, Kazis writes, is that it’s harder for young families to find housing.
The results of such exclusionary zoning have long-term impacts. Kazis writes that limited housing supplies lead to higher home values, making it harder for lower-income people to move into these towns and concentrating generational wealth in the families of those higher-income people already living there. Homeowners, he notes, have a median net worth that’s nearly 45 times as high as renters. Limiting the supply of housing prevents more renters from being able to afford to become homeowners. And, dating back to the redlining of the 1930s, limiting who can own housing where has long been a tool of racial segregation.
Because towns and cities control their own land use decisions, local governments have the ability to enact policies that prohibit or hinder new-housing development. That results in places like Bellerose in Nassau County, which has had a new-building moratorium in place since 1976. The only way to build a new house is to tear an old one down and build one in its place. With property values boosted by this kind of scarcity, homeowning voters are unlikely to overturn such a moratorium.
The report calls on the state to step in and fix the “broken” land use processes in its suburbs, making several recommendations for how New York can promote housing development and land use reform. The most straightforward path is to enact legislation, modeled on similar laws in states like Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, that allow certain zoning restrictions to be overruled in favor of projects that are either partly or fully affordable.
Other laws passed in states like California and Oregon require local governments to make explicit plans for how they will accommodate anticipated population growth through new-housing development. More recently, cities and states have eased restrictions on the permitting of accessory dwelling units, or backyard houses, that provide small but affordable housing on already developed lots. There are plenty of other precedents as well.
Kazis notes that change will be up to the state legislature. But as the Biden administration begins its tenure, its housing plan may offer the kind of guidance and pressure necessary to make changes politically viable. One part of the Biden housing plan may also put federal money on the line, requiring local and state governments to develop inclusionary zoning plans if they want to qualify for Community Development Block Grants or Surface Transportation Block Grants. With enough pressure from the top, the suburbs may finally be convinced to be part of the solution to the housing crisis.