Garden City, a leafy part of the Long Island suburb, is served by four stations on the Hempstead branch of the Long Island Rail Road. Residents can reach New York’s Penn Station in less than 45 minutes. Next year, thanks to billions of dollars in government spending, LIRR trains will also begin to run to Grand Central Terminal.
This is great news for people who can afford single-family homes in Garden City, where the average price is approaching a million dollars.
But the state is wasting its investment in suburban railroad expansion by allowing Garden City and other Long Island communities to maintain strict limits on building multi-family housing.
Local resistance to development has become the norm across the United States, particularly in affluent metropolitan areas along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts where housing is needed most. Other coastal states, recognizing the urgent need, impose limits on local control. Experts say New York is increasingly alone in doing nothing to force local governments to make room for housing.
Building around Long Island train stations would allow more people to reside in communities with high-quality public services and close to good jobs. It would also help straighten out the long history of racist housing policies that have made Long Island one of the most racially segregated suburban areas in America.
It would also be good for the environment, which could use the aid.
But Nassau County, which includes Garden City, is one of the toughest places to build housing in the United States. Over the past half century, as the population of the New York City area grew by about 30 percent, the population of Nassau declined by 5 percent.
Some local state governments, including New York City, have chosen to encourage the development of affordable housing through permissive zoning, financial incentives, or policies that require large projects to include affordable units. The neighboring county of Nassau County, Suffolk County, is taking steps to encourage development, especially around its stations.
Such measures are less common in the affluent areas of Nassau County closest to New York City. A 2017 report from the Regional Plan Association found that multi-family construction was not permitted near 16 of the 56 stations on Long Island Rail Road in Nassau County, including two of the stations in Garden City. Around the other stations, development is strictly limited, and a project can take decades to advance.
Bellerose, another Nassau County community on the Hempstead branch, did not allow any new housing between 2010 and 2018, according to a report on Long Island’s aversion to construction by Noah Kazis of the University’s Furman Center. from New York. This is an official policy: Bellerose only authorizes the replacement of existing accommodation on a case-by-case basis. The village code explains that authorizing additional housing “would be detrimental to the integrity of the village and to the health, safety and well-being of its inhabitants”.
Affordable housing debates often center around New York City, and that’s understandable. The city contains a larger share of the population of its region than other major American cities, it has the capacity to support dense development, and it needs to build more housing. According to the Regional Plan Association, the city prohibits multi-family development on more than six square miles of land within a 10-minute walk of a train or metro station.
But the city’s suburbs, especially in the underdeveloped county of Nassau, also need to build more. There is plenty of room. Nassau’s population density is 41% lower than Staten Island and 24% lower than Essex County, NJ
Housing construction is one of the country’s main economic activities; Long Island residents would benefit from participating. A larger population would consume more goods and services. Density also spurs innovation and makes everyone more prosperous.
One approach to the problem, pioneered by Massachusetts, is to build a bypass around local regulations. The state requires local governments to expedite reviews of affordable housing projects and allows developers to appeal rejections. Another approach, more common on the West Coast, is to require local governments to develop plans that make room for affordable housing. As the housing crisis worsened, some states have adopted broader measures. In 2019, Oregon established a minimum of duplexes – instead of single-family zoning, cities with at least 10,000 residents must allow at least two housing units on each lot.
Such policies are helpful. They are also totally unsuited to the scale of the crisis. New York is expected to get ahead of other states in taking advantage of its unrivaled public transportation infrastructure. Specifically, the state should enforce its own version of a law that had been proposed in California that would have required populated cities to allow mid-rise apartment buildings around train stations.
The Regional Plan Association estimated in 2017 that the undeveloped land around transit hubs and downtown areas in the tri-state region could accommodate nearly half a million new residents, including additional schools and other utilities that would be needed.
Such a law should also make it legal to build multi-family dwellings on land near transport stations currently occupied by single-family dwellings.
New York must face the fact that laws restricting development to single-family homes are government subsidies to wealthy households at the expense of less well-off households. Communities like Garden City are maintaining the affordability of single-family housing for a lucky minority by prohibiting more valuable uses of land near train stations. Local governments run housing subsidy programs for millionaires.
Democracy is not a defense for the behavior of these local governments. There are no citizens of Garden City; its residents are New Yorkers. The state must balance the powers it delegates to local communities with the wider public interest. Spending billions of taxpayer dollars to make it easier for the rich to move around is not the right balance. New York is building a better railroad. He needs to make sure less well-off New Yorkers can use it.