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Can Gov. Hochul Mitigate New York’s Emigration Crisis?

Over a two-year period, the state is estimated to have lost nearly half a million people while also returning to about 85 percent of the total jobs it had pre-pandemic. Hochul hopes new housing policies could help.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul
Shutterstock/lev radin
(TNS) — Twenty-five years ago, Kathy Hochul was reflecting on an early political loss. Despite efforts to block Walmart, the big box store had opened up in her town.

The development left the then-councilwoman of the Erie County, N.Y., town of Hamburg with a set of lessons she would bring to crafting changes to the town's master plan. The goal was to "show developers our vision of how the town will grow, not the other way around."

"You get called a communist," Hochul would tell the Buffalo News in 1997. "But what we want is to preserve the character of the town, not give in to rampant growth. We want to decide where new businesses go."

The following year, she would also start her campaign in support of her neighbors' right not to pay tolls when commuting between their communities and downtown Buffalo via the New York State Thruway.

"Toll barriers form a circular noose, strangling our center city," Hochul said in a 1998 op-ed in the Buffalo News. It left a "chilling effect on the business climate."

"Would the elimination of tolls result in an economic revival for western New York? Of course not," Hochul said. "But in the words of one businessman contemplating leaving our area, (the tolls are) another nail in the coffin."

Hochul, now the first governor from upstate in a century, is reckoning with a different type of challenge but along the same theme: How can she stem New York state's nation-leading outmigration flow in the face of economic headwinds, post-pandemic realities and a housing crisis in which there are more jobs than homes?

At last year's State of the State address, Hochul's first after taking over the position in August 2021, the governor said New York needed to "take a hard look in the mirror and deal with a harsh reality."

"To those who left temporarily because of the pandemic or are trying to decide their next steps during these uncertain times," Hochul said, "I have one message: You do not want to miss what is about to happen next."

The plan included massive investments in child care and health care. It featured investments to curb gun violence, build new infrastructure and scheduled tax relief for small businesses and middle-class New Yorkers. It sought to make the state's university system a crown jewel.

Hochul pledged to "jumpstart our economic recovery by being the most business-friendly and worker-friendly state in the nation."

The following year, the state's population loss continued to lead the nation, according to census data.

Over a two-year period, New York state is estimated to have lost nearly half a million people, but the state has returned to about 85 percent of the total jobs it had prior to the onset of the pandemic. The topic is one that Hochul's gubernatorial opponent, then- U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, made a focus of his campaign. And it shaped this year's State of the State.

"We're already seeing signs of out-migration that we cannot ignore," Hochul said Tuesday. "The good news is: It doesn't have to be this way."

What's the Plan?

Hochul is looking toward housing policy that promotes greater density, even if it's in contrast with the desires of some local governments.

"We arrived at some very bold and impactful initiatives — ideas that will not be easy at all, but they're necessary," Hochul said at a December speech in which she previewed the necessity for her policy to address a housing crisis that she called "decades in the making."

She cited such issues as "institutional barriers" and "NIMBYism on steroids," referring to people who say they do not want some type of development in their "backyard."

Her view is that New York is challenged at the moment not by a lack of good-paying jobs but by a scarcity of places to live once someone takes a job.

Over the last decade 800,000 more jobs were created than housing units, according to her administration. New York is losing people to neighboring states where they can both commute to work and afford their home. (She did not cite the recent trend of tele-working from a more affordable state.)

Administration officials believe their plan, if enacted, to build 800,000 units in a decade would double the expected growth in housing supply. The new units, not necessarily homes for low-income people, can help regulate a market that has a dearth of housing supply, administration officials said. It can also "filter down," leading to lower rents over time, they said, contesting that more supply would not lead to increased rent costs or displaced residents. It would also not depress property values, the officials said, citing a variety of research.

"If we do the hard things, which turn out to be the right things, we can transform this (outmigration) crisis into an opportunity," Hochul said.

Hochul believes creating more housing also gives young people the opportunity to live in the communities that they grew up in, as she did in Hamburg.

"If you can't live near your grandchildren if you want to, something's breaking down the social order, the fabric is breaking down," said Hochul in December, also noting that dynamic's relationship to the cost of child care.

Another key element in bolstering New York, Hochul said, is to address the growing mental health crisis. Her plan focuses on people with acute illness who may go through a revolving door of homelessness, hospital stays and, sometimes, jail time, without access to stable housing.

It's an issue that Hochul regularly faced on the town board in Hamburg, in which, she recently said, she took the "line of fire" on allowing zoning for group homes against the wishes of "NIMBYs, the people who didn't want that to happen."

Also an issue of recent concern is the proliferation of illegal firearms and a general rise in crime. The governor hopes to alter the state's bail statute regarding "serious crimes" and continue to invest in reducing gun violence.

"If New Yorkers don't feel safe in our communities, if they can't afford to buy a home or pay the rent, then the dream stays out of reach," Hochul said on Tuesday.

And while Hochul has frequently spoken on the ample supply of available jobs in the state — but not enough homes — she also points to a lack of matching skills and education needed by employers relative to the workforce.

"This is partially due to population loss during and after the pandemic," Hochul's policy book states.

She also attributes it to people who have left the labor market and the lack of proper workforce training.

The governor wants to see the state Department of Labor provide more streamlined professional development, with a focus on "high-demand industries and hard-to-fill job titles." Hochul wants the State University of New York to work with that department.

In citing successes, she frequently refers to the $100 billion investment from Micron in the Syracuse-area, which is tied into state subsidies. This year, Hochul wants to create a Governor's Office of Semiconductor Expansion, Management and Integration to help manage and facilitate future investment.

For Hochul, it goes back to the state incentivizing more housing to be built, especially around places of job growth. And to do it in a way that will allow New York to keep pace with neighboring states, even if the policies receive pushback from suburban communities here.

"We want the smartest, the best, the brightest, the most innovative, the best risk takers to continue coming here because that's what made New York what it is," Hochul said. "But we're in a competition with other states, literally with our hands tied behind our backs."

(c)2023 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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