A housing development under construction near the Fleetwood station in Westchester County. Pro-housing groups in the suburbs are preparing for an uphill battle to generate public support after Gov. Hochul’s housing plan was left out of the state budget. // Buck Ennis
When Gov. Kathy Hochul announced the details of her plan to build 800,000 new homes in New York over the next decade, the crux of which would have been state requirements for the suburbs to increase production, pro-development groups in the area were thrilled to see the housing shortage finally get the attention they thought it deserved.
“We’ve had 50 years now of leaving it to local communities to try and find ways of solving the problem with various levels of state help, and it hasn’t worked,” said Westchester County Association President Michael Romita. “The goal is simply to get local communities to take some action, to do something, and if they can’t, to justify the reason why.”
However, Hochul soon found the plan under attack from all sides of the political spectrum, including from some suburban lawmakers concerned about the changes it would mandate in their towns. Housing proposals were ultimately left out of New York’s budget almost entirely, although some advocates still saw benefits to the newfound prominence of the topic, noting that some towns have already been working to increase their supply as the threat of state action continues to loom.
“Obviously, it’s a disappointment that the governor and Legislature couldn’t get something done here,” Romita said following the plan’s collapse. “We’re sort of back where we started before all this happened.”
The suburbs’ reputation for opposing new developments is well earned, and the failure of Hochul’s housing compact demonstrates that the resistance remains strong despite broad agreement that the region’s housing production has not kept pace with its population growth in recent years.
But the opposition is not and never has been universal, and the housing compact’s being left out of the budget does not mean the end of pushing for more homes in the suburbs. Pro-housing groups such as the Westchester County Association and Long Island Housing Services are now settling in for what they always expected to be a long road ahead.
“You have to build public support. I heard from some elected officials that they were getting calls from people opposing it and not the people in favor, which means the people in favor were not organized enough,” said Long Island Housing Services Executive Director Ian Wilder. “We have to get them to reach their elected officials so their elected officials know this is an issue they need to support.”
Some pro-housing groups were reluctant to even frame the collapse of the housing compact as a total defeat. The mere fact that the issue played such a prominent role in budget negotiations has made the idea of state control over local housing policy seem much more real, encouraging municipalities to figure out how to deal with the shortage on their own now rather than deal with a state-mandated solution later.
Tim Foley, CEO of Westchester’s Builders Institute, pointed to ordinances Ardsley and Tarrytown have recently passed allowing for accessory dwelling units, generally defined as apartments in a home’s basement, attic or garage, as an example of towns trying to get ahead of potential state requirements around housing.
“They think the government in Albany will be passing something on ADUs,” he said. “They’d much rather pass it in a way that they think strikes a balance for their community and say, ‘Look, we already have it’ than to have it foisted upon them.”
Tarrytown Mayor Karen Brown echoed this point, saying the town thought it would be best to get an ADU law passed “that fit our local needs.”
“Judging by projects in the pipeline, I think we will see many of the governor’s housing goals reached organically here in Tarrytown and throughout the Hudson Valley,” she said.
And even the more controversial aspects of Hochul’s plan still found some support among local elected officials in the suburbs. New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson described the initiative as “very positive,” with growth targets that were “reasonable and achievable.” He was disappointed but not shocked that such a big potential change to the suburbs didn’t make it over the finish line on its first attempt.
New Rochelle is generally seen as one of the more pro-development areas of Westchester County. The city has already welcomed at least two new apartment buildings with more than 100 units this year alone. Nearby, in Mount Vernon, new apartment buildings are springing up along the Metro-North’s Harlem line, which accounts for two of that city’s three commuter rail stops.
Bramson took issue with the general perception of adding housing to an area as a necessary hardship for communities to endure, instead framing it as a positive move with far-reaching advantages.
“I do not regard well-planned growth as a burden. I regard it as a benefit,” he said. “If it’s done properly, it breathes new life into downtown areas. It creates new job opportunities. It moderates the upward pressure on housing costs and makes our region far more accessible.”
Though Mt. Kisco Mayor Gina Picinich agreed that increasing housing and making it more accessible was important, she stressed that every community would have different challenges to address and took issue with the idea of a 3% growth target across the board. She also emphasized that the image of Westchester being filled with nothing but expansive single-family homes was inaccurate, particularly in Mt. Kisco.
“The accusation is that Westchester is just this suburban, single-family-zoned community where people are restrictive and exclusive. It’s not,” she said. “Only 25% of my housing is free-standing single-family homes.”
Patchogue has been fairly supportive of new housing on Long Island, although Mayor Paul Pontieri stressed that “it doesn’t happen when you force it down people’s throats.” He argued in favor of a more targeted development approach from the state focused on specific sites that would be good for housing rather than blanket growth requirements.
He was particularly enthusiastic about identifying areas along the region’s train lines, which he viewed as ripe for more residential projects.
“Let’s start out with transit-oriented developments,” he said. “If you get on a train someday, look out the window, what do you see? You see a bunch of junkyards, vacant properties, industrial properties, all of these non-housing properties along the rail lines.”
Starting a conversation around housing and towns making moves to increase production on their own are still small steps compared to the more sweeping changes the housing compact would have sparked. Pro-housing groups are mostly focused on getting more organized going forward so they can more effectively counter groups opposed to plans like the compact, as they have historically been the louder voices. The groups also seek to amplify the voices of community members who are in support of more development.
Open New York, a pro-housing group that has so far focused mainly on the city, recently launched chapters on Long Island and in Westchester as well. This will hopefully start to change what politicians in those areas hear from their constituents about new developments, said policy director Andrew Fine.
“Our goal is to organize those people and to make those voices heard and keep on getting individual projects off the ground to show that this is good for communities, is not scary, creates a lot of benefits and brings in great new neighbors,” he said.
Although Fine was frustrated that the compact didn’t make it into the budget, he stressed that the organization always knew approval would be a difficult process.
“We’re definitely disappointed, but we expected this to be a long fight,” he said. “If it were easy, it would have changed a long time ago.”