New York City (photo: Governor’s Office)
New Yorkers are voting this month in the Democratic and Republican primaries for Governor as the state grapples with an affordable housing crisis that has hit downstate regions home to some two-thirds of its population the hardest. The issue has been far more elevated among the three Democratic candidates to lead the state for the next four years, with the four Republican candidates largely ignoring the topic. That trend changed somewhat when Gotham Gazette asked the Republican campaigns about the issue.
Candidates on both sides of the aisle do have proposals for addressing the state’s affordable housing crisis, including to build more homes and incentivize development, ensure affordability, and revamp crumbling public housing.
Democrats Jumaane Williams and Tom Suozzi issued housing plans on their campaign websites months ago, and Williams has made it among the top three focus issues of his campaign. Meanwhile, Governor Kathy Hochul is running in part on implementing the five-year housing plan that she passed in this year’s state budget.
Among Republicans, none of the four candidates has issued a housing plan publicly, but upon inquiry, Rob Astorino and Harry Wilson provided Gotham Gazette with their ideas, while Lee Zeldin and Andrew Giuliani ignored multiple requests to do so. The four GOP candidates have been campaigning largely on crime and taxes.
Population growth in New York City and its suburbs has continued to outpace residential development over the past decade – squeezing renters, keeping vacancy rates at emergency levels, increasing homelessness, hurting quality of life, and reducing home ownership opportunities.
Nearly a third of New York City renters spend more than half of their income on rent, according to findings from the 2021 Housing and Vacancy Survey published last month by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. That number jumps to 85% among households with incomes less than $25,000. Meanwhile, there are more than 60,000 homeless people in New York City and the vacancy rate for apartments renting at under $1,500 a month is below 1%. The city builds less housing per capita than nearly any other large city in the country, according to Citizens Budget Commission.
The root of the state and city housing crisis extends beyond the five boroughs. It has been well-established for decades that Westchester and Long Island have severely limited housing growth, with the regions having some of the lowest housing production rates in the country, issuing far fewer permits for housing than in neighboring New Jersey and Connecticut or the suburban regions of Boston, Washington D.C., and the Bay Area.
The percentage of households defined as “extremely low income” in New York City is also double that of Westchester, Nassau, and Suffolk, according to data compiled by Social Explorer, leading some to pressure those municipalities to build more housing for low-income families.
In her agenda released early this year, Hochul had attempted to pursue strategies for more housing growth in the suburbs, especially transit-rich areas with easier commutes to New York City, but in the face of intense pushback from elected officials, particularly on Long Island, she abandoned the proposals. It was among the housing setbacks during the governor’s first budget and legislative session in the role, while she was able to notch other accomplishments among her housing priorities.
Hochul, the Democratic governor who took office last August, has touted the $25 billion, five-year housing plan that was funded in the state budget approved in April, with funding focused toward creating and preserving affordable housing, including supportive housing that has social services on-site. Highlights of the plan also include the promise to electrify an additional 50,000 homes and boost the production of affordable rental housing, advance home-ownership, senior housing, and more.
Hochul recently signed a bill passed by the Legislature that makes it easier to convert underutilized hotel space into permanent homes and another to create the New York City Housing Preservation Trust that is expected to unlock billions in federal funding for NYCHA public housing, home to more than 400,000 New Yorkers and in dire need of tens of billions of dollars in capital repairs.
Hochul was unable to convince the Legislature to approve her proposed changes to the 421-a program that provides large tax breaks for housing development in New York City that includes some affordable housing.
The governor opposed the controversial ‘Good Cause’ eviction bill, which would significantly limit allowable rent increases and evictions in rental housing but did not have enough votes to pass the Legislature. It is among the proposals that Williams and other progressives have criticized Hochul over and it is a policy central to his housing plan.
Hochul proposed two policies to relax restrictions on accessory dwelling units in single-family lots and multi-family homes near commuter rail stations, but both were abandoned in an amended budget plan in February. The revisions, which disappointed many housing advocates, came after suburban lawmakers widely criticized the bills as threats to local zoning authority and single-family home-ownership.
Included in her housing agenda was also replacing the 421-a tax abatement – which has offered property tax breaks on apartment building construction since 1971, but expired last week. Opponents to the program have attacked it as a developer giveaway that costs taxpayers $1.7 billion per year, but real estate industry leaders and some elected officials like Hochul and Mayor Adams warn that affordable housing development will plummet in its absence. Hochul proposed a replacement program, called 485-w, that made some adjustments to the recently-expired program to require more affordable housing in properties receiving the tax break. But the Legislature declined to take it up.
According to her campaign website, Hochul also hopes to improve housing access for renters involved in the criminal justice system or with negative credit history, bolster legal support for those facing eviction, create a disaster recovery and resiliency housing unit, and overall address poverty to prevent homelessness statewide.
Among the opposition to Hochul’s ‘granny flat’ proposal was Rep. Tom Suozzi, who is also seeking the Democratic nomination for Governor this year. Suozzi, who represents the 3rd Congressional District mostly based in Nassau County on Long Island, said it was a state overreach and threat to local single-family zoning.
“There is a better way to expand New York’s affordable housing stock based on local control, not Hochul control,” Suozzi says on his campaign website.
Suozzi is offering a series of initiatives that he believes would address the housing crisis. If elected, he says he would craft his own multibillion-dollar affordable housing development plan while focusing on repurposing office buildings and hotels, promoting affordable housing tax incentives, building transit-oriented development in suburban localities, and investing in New York State Homes and Community Renewal.
Suozzi offers few details beyond promising, if elected, to craft a plan based on those broad principles.
On Gotham Gazette’s Max’s Politics podcast, Suozzi discussed his plan to enhance downtown suburban areas near train stations to attract young renters and meet some of the significant demand for housing in the New York metropolitan area. He said would create more “cool downtowns,” as he had as Nassau County executive, developing affordable rental apartments, commerce areas, offices, and dining and entertainment options. “Young people are not interested in suburbia,” he said. “We need to make it fun for young people to live there.”
He added that he would keep the rate of return that a developer can make on projects below 10% while incentivizing widespread housing development through tax breaks.
“We need to create a lot more supply of housing, which will help to reduce cost, and we need to actually target affordable housing as well by providing tax incentives to do it,” he said.
New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, another Democratic primary contender in this year’s gubernatorial race, has also been a critic of Hochul’s housing initiatives.
“Governor Hochul’s housing strategy is woefully inadequate to meet the scale of the housing crisis, the depth of need, that decades of corporate giveaways have helped to create,” he said in a March 18 press release announcing his own housing plan.
Williams promises to employ very robust government subsidy programs to cap rent at 30% of household income across the board and to build or preserve 1 million affordable housing units by restructuring how Empire State Development does business, where the city’s housing subsidy funding goes, and leveraging public funds to build more affordable housing.
Williams says that the housing crisis can largely be blamed on profit-motivated private developers’ domination of the housing market, which he says has been encouraged by government giveaways and tax breaks like 421-a. He proposes working with nonprofits and qualified housing operators – rather than revenue-focused companies – to increase development. He is also vehemently supporting the Good Cause eviction bill, which he says would provide renters needed protections.
Other highlights of his housing plan include strengthening tenant associations, expanding cooperative housing models, and introducing a progressive property tax system to offer working and middle-class homeowners rebates.
“Housing is a human right, and housing and homelessness need to be a top priority for anyone who wants to lead our state,” Williams said in the press release.
In response to Gotham Gazette inquiries, Astorino – the former Westchester County Executive who was the Republican nominee for Governor in 2014 – said that as governor he would take several steps to address the state affordable housing crisis.
Astorino said he would strengthen partnerships with the private sector, adding revenue-generating retail establishments to NYCHA and other public housing developments. “One look at a NYCHA building should tell anyone that government-run housing almost always ends up subpar,” Astorino said by email. “We can do better with common sense, hard work, and less politicization around tenants and landlords.”
He said would also reintroduce “luxury decontrol” for rent-stabilized apartments, a policy that previously allowed landlords to deregulate a unit, or remove it from rent regulation, if the tenants earned over $200,000 per year in the past two consecutive years. He said that the policy would help affordable housing target needier residents, while also increasing cooperation with landlords. “Instead of making landlords the enemy, we need to bring them into the discussion to come up with free-market solutions to expand housing stock all across the state,” he said.
Astorino said he would also pursue rezoning initiatives to help developers create more housing stock, though he did not clarify how he would do so in his statement to Gotham Gazette. He added that he opposes rezoning single-family-housing areas – a policy that he previously fought against as county executive – but that he is in favor of transit-oriented housing approved by local communities.
Wilson, a businessman who has worked for major investment companies and in the federal government, also proposes increasing the housing supply through an ambitious plan to restructure NYCHA and boost housing development by working with the private sector.
“One of the primary thrusts of our Turnaround Plan for New York is to make it far more affordable for middle-class and working-class families, and addressing housing costs is an important – but far from the only – part of that effort,” Wilson, a Westchester Republican, said by email.
He said that he blames the crisis on underinvestment in housing stock, restrictive and outdated zoning laws, NYCHA administrative mismanagement, and high construction and planning costs driven by overregulation.
To address the lack of affordable housing supply, Wilson said that it is essential to lower the cost of development over the long-term and subsidize it in the interim through a successor to the 421-a program. “I believe the former is both inherently more sustainable and less subject to political gamesmanship, though in the short-term some level of subsidization for affordable housing (like a successor to 421-a) is unfortunately necessary,” he told Gotham Gazette.
Wilson said that he would also use the governorship to establish a committee responsible for reviewing NYCHA mismanagement, while also developing a plan that would unlock Section 8 funding to help low- and moderate- income families rent in the private market.
He added that legislators need to review zoning laws and conduct a realistic assessment of housing needs across a broad array of price points, helping legislators to increase housing supply and meet the needs of both landlords and renters.
“While there is a great deal of work to be done, and much progress that must be made, the underlying management principles are straightforward,” Wilson said. “We need to make operating costs more affordable and a closer match to tenant revenues while separately financing the long-neglected capital needs, all consistent with a realistic long-term plan and accountability for each step along the way to ensure NYCHA’s many problems are actually solved and not just talked about.”
Lee Zeldin and Andrew Giuliani
Neither Zeldin’s nor Giuliani’s gubernatorial campaign replied to multiple requests to provide their candidate’s assessment of the state affordable housing crisis and what they propose to do about it if elected Governor.
Zeldin, the Long Island congressman, was among the vocal critics of Hochul’s accessory dwelling unit proposal when the governor released it early this year, but has not offered his own plans for how to increase affordable housing in New York