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In New York, NIMBYism Finally Outstays Its Welcome

Why is it so hard to build housing in New York?

In search of an answer to this question, I spoke with Marjorie Velázquez, the City Council member whose one-woman opposition is being allowed to hold up the construction of a roughly 350-unit housing development in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx, a project that includes apartments for older people and veterans.

Ms. Velázquez’s stated reasons for opposing the project are wide-ranging. She has concerns about crowding in schools. She wants to know “what kind” of veterans will live in the development (“I see a lot of groups come in and say, ‘Oh we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that!’ and appear to be heroes and they leave our veterans behind,” she told me). She says the city should be focusing on infrastructure needs in the area. “We’re a transit desert,” she said.

Then, she talks about the sinkholes that plague Throgs Neck, a community she says has been ignored. “Do you see what I’m saying?” she asked, adding that she wanted to “make sure that it’s for us, by us.”

The City Council may vote for a zoning change that would clear the way for the Throgs Neck project anyway. Approving the change over Ms. Velázquez’s objection would be a major break in tradition for the council, setting an important precedent in a city where people are struggling to afford to stay in their homes and communities.

Some of Ms. Velázquez’s constituents in Throgs Neck, a tidy neighborhood dotted with single-family homes at the mouth of the East River, have been expressed their opposition differently. “He wants to put low-income drug houses on the corner here!” one man shouted at a protest over the proposed rezoning in June, according to video of the event posted on Twitter. Whether he was referring to Mayor Eric Adams or someone else is unclear.

In New York, patience for this kind of NIMBYism — the “not in my backyard” phenomenon in which communities oppose badly needed new housing — is growing thin. Local communities hold enormous power to block development, often through local council members in New York City, or county executives in the suburbs. As the housing crisis intensifies, there are signs that New York’s politicians may finally be willing tostand up to NIMBYism.

“When you say ‘not in our backyard,’ you are believing your block belongs to you. It belongs to the city,” Mr. Adams said in a phone conversation. “I believe local communities should have input, but we all need to take responsibility for the housing crisis we are facing.”

For years, neighborhoods in New York City and the New York suburbs have had near veto power over land-use and housing development decisions. That could soon change. In the 51-seat City Council, momentum is gathering to end a practice known as “member deference,” in which the entire body lets a member decide the fate of land-use proposals in his or her district.

“I reject that this will be a Council that says no to housing, given the scale of the crisis we face,” the Council speaker, Adrienne E. Adams said in a statement. Ms. Adams said the Council would continue to value community input, but not “irrational opposition that rejects desperately needed housing.”

The mayor is also backing smaller changes to the citywide zoning code that would make it easier to build housing and don’t require the approval of individual Council members. One of those changes, for example, would remove caps on the building of studio apartments. Another would eliminate rules requiring a certain number of parking spaces to be built with housing units. Dan Garodnick, chair of the City Planning Commission, told me his team had found dozens of such regulations that create needless barriers to housing production.

This change in New York politics is part of a nascent but promising movement. As rents rise, the anti-development sentiment that once dominated Democratic politics is giving way to calls to build more housing, fast. Lately, even politicians who count themselves among the most skeptical regarding for-profit developers have thrown their support behind building units to ease the crisis.

Councilwoman Tiffany Cabán, a proudly far-left Democrat, surprised many recently when she voted to site 1,400 new units of housing in her district in Queens. “Listen, I’m not anti-development,” she told me. “We desperately need more housing.” Ms. Cabán said she had come to believe the city should embrace every possible way to build more housing, from allowing responsible building by for-profit developers to using whatever city-owned land remains to put up apartments.

But solving the housing crisis in New York City will require a regional approach. The city and its suburbs are connected by extensive rail lines allowing residents of Long Island and Westchester to commute to Manhattan. The system is an enormous strength. But for the better part of a century, zoning laws in Westchester and especially Long Island have severely limited the construction of higher-density housing developments.

The zoning laws have their roots in the Jim Crow era of segregation, when they were used to keep Black Americans and others from buying homes in certain areas. The problem is especially acute on Long Island, where the biggest growth took place in the years after World War II, when the federal government backed housing discrimination through preferential treatment in government loans.

Over time, these laws have contributed not only to racial and economic segregation in New York, but also to the affordability crisis by constraining the region’s housing supply. Gov. Kathy Hochul and the State Legislature need to challenge suburban zoning laws that make it difficult or virtually impossible to build the multifamily housing the state needs.

Eliminating these restrictions doesn’t have to mean the end of suburban life. Indeed, higher-density development in suburban downtowns can invigorate them. It won’t be easy. A proposal in the State Legislature that would have allowed for multifamily housing to be built around transit centers on Long Island failed this year after Ms. Hochul backed down in the face of local opposition. If she is re-elected this November, resurrecting that effort would be a worthy priority.

The governor and the State Legislature could also go much farther. California last year essentially banned single-family zoning, something that leaders in Albany could consider as well. They could also could make government investment in the suburbs contingent on the elimination of exclusionary zoning. At the very least, state and federal officials could make it clear to communities in Suffolk and Nassau Counties that infrastructure improvements for the Long Island Rail Road will continue only if multifamily housing is built near transit centers.

Several members of New York’s congressional delegation support a bill introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren known as the American Housing and Mobility Act, which would offer federal funding for localities that reform their zoning laws to encourage greater density and the building of moderate- and low-income housing. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a co-sponsor of the bill, acknowledged that passing the bill would be an uphill battle. “NIMBYism is real,” she told me in a phone conversation.

Given the scale of the crisis, these efforts to build more housing are essential and urgent. The median rent in the city has undergone a double-digit percentage increase from prepandemic levels in every borough but Staten Island, according to data from StreetEasy.

The good news is that housing is at long last a political priority. If it doesn’t build more housing, and quickly, New York will soon shut out young, working-class and middle-class people. Only the wealthiest will remain, along with NIMBY holdouts sprinkled across the city. What a lonely, sterile end to New York that would be.

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