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New York’s Affordable Housing Plan Bypasses Local Zoning

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s affordable housing plan would give the state power to bypass local zoning laws, but local officials want to maintain control of what is built in their communities. The state is in historic need of more housing.

Genesee Street in Fayetteville, NY
Genesee Street in Fayetteville is lined with many grand historical homes that line the village of Fayetteville. Governor Hochul wants towns to rezone to increase available properties for residential development, but Fayetteville says it has no more property to develop at all.
N. Scott Trimble/
(TNS) — New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s push to force towns and villages to allow more affordable housing has set off a firestorm among local leaders, who say they want to keep their right to decide what’s built in their communities.

Hochul’s plan would give the state power to bypass local zoning laws, tipping the scales in favor of affordable housing projects and limiting the power of local leaders to control what their municipalities look like.

Fayetteville Mayor Mark Olson says there’s a reason people want to live in the 178-year-old village in Syracuse’s eastern suburbs: Its 4,200 residents like the character of a community that spans less than 2 square miles. Those qualities are an outgrowth of local zoning.

Housing advocates, however, say zoning laws have been used too often to exclude lower-income residents, leading to racial segregation and concentrated poverty in cities.

Sharon Sherman, executive director of the Greater Syracuse Tenants Network, said it’s clear why a lot of suburban towns and villages make it difficult for builders to obtain permits to build apartments and affordable housing.

“If there’s an affordable component, they’re going to think of Black and brown people,” Sherman said. “We’re in a housing crisis throughout the United States, and some people are saying they don’t want to be around so many people and cars and traffic. They say they moved to the suburbs to get away from people. But that’s not a right.”

Both sides agree on one thing: The state needs more affordable housing, a shortage that Hochul calls a crisis.

Hochul’s proposal to speed the construction of 800,000 housing units across New York over the next decade would allow developers, in some cases, to bypass local zoning laws and seek approval from the state.

Hochul said she has to act now. The state faces a historic shortage of all types of housing. It’s a crisis that disproportionately hurts the poor and people of color. And it will require a shared statewide response from every community, she said.

A growing number of people can’t afford to live in New York state. And right now, affordable housing is concentrated mostly in cities. To solve the problem, suburbs and rural areas will need to do their share, the governor said.

How Zoning Limits Affordable Housing

Hochul laid out her plan in her State of the State address and is expected to provide more detail in her budget today. She said her approach would reverse a trend that made New York one of the nation’s most restrictive states when it comes to allowing new housing development, especially multi-family affordable housing.

CNY Fair Housing, a non-profit organization dedicated to eliminating housing discrimination, is finishing an analysis of zoning laws in every town in Onondaga County.

The group’s study found only 3 percent of the developed land in the county is zoned for apartment buildings with 10 or more units.

“We see all the time that proposals to build multi-family housing run up against opposition in the zoning process,” said Sally Santangelo, the group’s executive director. “They face all sorts of NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard) because of concerns about traffic, the density or even the type of the people who will live there.”

Sara Bronin, a Cornell University professor of planning and law, is documenting the problem in a New York State Zoning Atlas.

“We’re already finding many communities with restrictive zoning rules,” Bronin said. “Examples are large minimum lot sizes, restrictions on multi-family housing, height caps and minimum parking requirements. When combined, these types of regulations can greatly restrict the number of housing units that can be built in a community.”

Bronin, a Mexican American who grew up in Houston where there are no zoning regulations, said the study’s preliminary results show the most restrictive zoning in New York is typically in suburban and rural areas.

A Growing Local and National Problem

New York, like other states, faces a housing shortage amid rising demand and inflation. The result is skyrocketing home prices and soaring rent.

In the Syracuse metropolitan area (Onondaga, Madison and Oswego counties) the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment increased 23 percent over the past two years, from $901 in 2021 to $1,109 this year, according to federal data.

At the same time, the median home sale price in Central New York reached an all-time record of $195,000 in June.

The governor said her plan will help spur new housing, helping to lower prices with a bigger supply.

“Every community in New York must do their part to encourage housing growth to move our state forward and keep our economy strong,” Hochul said in her address.

The governor’s office estimates that about 80 percent of all localities in the state would have to permit 50 new homes or fewer over the next three years to meet the goals set by the state.

Governors in states that include Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington and Georgia are also pushing for tax credits, subsidies and incentives to encourage new housing construction.

Fayetteville Mayor Mark Olson
Fayetteville Mayor Mark Olson stands in front of the last available lot zoned for residential development in the village.
N. Scott Trimble/

Local Leaders Cry Foul

Olson said the governor’s plan, the New York Housing Compact, violates the home-rule rights that form the constitutional foundation for local government in New York. Those powers allow each community to regulate its quality of life.

“You lose the character of your community by the state mandating what you should do,” Olson told “I think it should be up to each community to decide those things.”

While Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh and Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon say they support Hochul’s goals to grow housing, they expressed concerns with her approach.

“As a mayor who values the importance of local control and local zoning, my desire is always to control my own destiny,” Walsh said.

“It’s fairytale thinking,” McMahon said of the governor’s plan.

Both leaders said they will encourage Hochul to work with local officials to develop incentives for new housing while respecting local zoning laws and regulations.

McMahon is taking steps to prepare for a steep rise in housing demand in Onondaga County over the next 20 years fueled by Micron’s planned $100 billion computer chip complex in the town of Clay.

McMahon said some of the small southern towns in Onondaga County don’t have the sewers and other infrastructure that would allow for new homes.

He suggested to the governor’s office that the state turn to each county to help develop master plans for housing development and coordinate with municipalities. Onondaga County is completing a plan due out later this year.

“To start a discussion with a nuclear stick, without having a bottom-up discussion with us, I think is wrong,” McMahon said of the Hochul administration.

Bold Action is Needed

Over the past decade, the state had a net gain of 1.35 million new jobs but only 400,000 units of new housing. The shortage has helped fuel higher housing costs.

In Syracuse, Albany, Rochester and Buffalo, home prices increased an average of 50-80 percent since 2015 and rental prices increased 40-60 percent during the same period, according to the governor’s office.

In the New York City metro area, home prices are up 50 percent and rent prices increased 30 percent since 2015.

The result is an affordability crisis. Statewide, more than half of renters pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent. In Central New York, 46 percent of households pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent, according to the governor’s office.

Hochul wants to ease the crisis with an aggressive plan that requires all cities, towns and villages to increase the number of houses, apartments and townhomes within their borders.

Hochul’s proposal intends to correct past inequities when affordable housing was developed in cities instead of suburbs and rural areas. It led to deep pockets of poverty among racial minorities in cities such as Syracuse. The city gained unwanted attention in 2015 when a study found Syracuse had the nation’s highest rate of extreme poverty concentrated among Blacks and Hispanics.

Under the governor’s plan, each municipality in Upstate New York would be required to grow the number of housing units by at least 1 percent at the end of a three-year period.

New York City and Downstate municipalities would be asked to increase the number of housing units by at least 3 percent every three years.

In Central New York, almost 4,000 new housing units would have to be built over the next three years to attain the 1 percent growth rate, according to Hochul’s office. The governor defines the region as Onondaga, Cayuga, Oswego, Madison and Cortland counties.

Hochul’s office said only 29 percent of Central New York localities met that targeted growth rate over the three years from 2018 through 2020.

It won’t matter if the region or an individual county meets the state’s goal. Each village, town and city in Central New York would be required to grow its housing by at least 1 percent at the end of a three-year period.

What happens if a city, town or village fails to meet those goals?

The state would step in with an alternative path for housing developers to bypass local zoning laws, as long as a project includes 20 units or more of affordable housing.

Developers whose plans are rejected by a municipality would be able to appeal to a new state housing board or go to court to seek approval.

The state appeals board would be required to approve the project unless a municipality can cite a health or safety reason for the denial.

The state board’s decision could override local governments like the town of Cicero, a Syracuse suburb that last month rejected a zone change for a $100 million housing project from a developer who wanted to build 278 apartments and townhomes on 32 acres off Route 11.

The United Group of Companies, based in Troy, had already downsized the project from 400 units. But Cicero town officials still had concerns about the project’s density and its impact on traffic.

The project, which includes senior housing, would be rented at market rates.

While it would appear United Group’s efforts could be helped by Hochul’s plan, the developer isn’t interested. Tim Haskins, United Group’s senior director of project development, said most places where developers want to build will easily meet the state’s goals.

“I would rather have a municipality approve or deny projects on its own merits,” Haskins said.” Adding a hammer from the state, I think, in most cases is nonproductive.”

Olson, who leads a New York Conference of Mayors committee studying the governor’s proposal, said the state’s goals are unreasonable for a tiny village such as Fayetteville, where there’s only one open lot remaining that’s zoned for residential development.

“In theory, I like the idea of trying to get more housing units,” Olson said. “What I don’t like is the top-down approach.”

U.S. Census data shows Fayetteville has 1,844 housing units. To grow that total by 1 percent, the village would have to add at least 18 new homes or apartments to comply with the state goal.

Santangelo, of CNY Fair Housing, said the village could easily meet the state’s requirement by allowing one multi-family apartment building to be built on land that’s now zoned for commercial or other uses.

“If you can’t get 18 units of housing built in Fayetteville, we have a big problem,” Santangelo said. “We’re not talking about huge numbers.”

In fact, Hochul’s plan encourages communities to grow housing in alternative ways, such as allowing old office parks or vacant commercial shopping centers to be developed into housing.

Fayetteville rejected such an alternative in 2019 when a developer asked for a zone change to turn a 30-acre former manufacturing site into a mixed-use property with apartments.

Morgan Management proposed building 200 apartments and a grocery store at the property off East Genesee Street once occupied by Accurate Die Casting. But neighbors cited concerns about increased traffic, and school district officials pushed back with concerns about adding more students.

In December, the village approved plans to build a grocery store on the site without any housing.

Olson said Fayetteville is still trying to encourage the construction of affordable apartments.

Village officials worked with developers on a plan to build affordable housing on public land next to the Fayetteville Senior Center. It would have added 12 to 14 apartment units for seniors.

But village officials decided not to advance the proposal. “The neighbors didn’t want it,” Olson said.

Santangelo said Fayetteville’s experience demonstrates why Hochul’s plan is needed.

“The reason we need these changes is because we have municipal officials who are hearing all of this opposition and it’s hard for them to go against that,” she said. “It’s hard for them to look at their neighbors and constituents and say, ‘We know you don’t want this, but we’re going to go ahead and approve it anyway.’ "

Under the governor’s plan, municipalities could show that they are making a “good faith effort” to comply with the state’s housing goals by changing local regulations, making it easier to grow housing capacity.

The state will consider municipalities in compliance if they take any of five preferred actions:

  • Rezone areas within a municipality for multifamily development.
  • Rezone existing commercial areas – such as office parks and strip shopping centers – to allow for residential development at a minimum density.
  • Remove restrictions that exclude new housing, such as minimum lot sizes, height limits, lot coverage restrictions and parking minimums.
  • Allow lots for single-family homes to be split into two lots.
  • Allow the construction of accessory dwelling units, without “unreasonable” requirements such as height limits and parking restrictions.

In her budget proposal last year, Hochul wanted to require local governments to increase their available housing by allowing small homes, or accessory dwelling units (ADUs), to be built on lots already occupied by single-family homes. Such homes are sometimes referred to as “granny flats” or in-law apartments.

Hochul scrapped the plan after facing bipartisan opposition, including claims by Republicans that it would lead to the “death of the suburbs.”

Some Say Hochul’s Plan Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Some progressive Democrats have called for a more aggressive approach than Hochul’s.

State Sen. Rachel May has introduced a bill that would create a new state board to hear appeals from developers whose affordable housing projects have been denied in municipalities where less than 15 percent of housing is designated affordable. May’s staff could not say how many municipalities would be affected.

The board would not be allowed to override a local government’s decision if that city, town or village managed to grow its total of affordable housing units by 2 percent or more in the previous year.

May and other advocates for affordable housing say it’s unfair to limit such housing to cities. She said it’s time for suburban towns and other smaller municipalities to offer some solutions.

May, D- Syracuse, told that she anticipated strong pushback.

“You don’t want to overrule home rule, but we have a crisis,” May said. “We need more housing. And we need more affordable housing.”

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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