When she announced in January a plan to kick off a building boom of housing across New York — 800,000 units in the next decade, even if it means going over the heads of reluctant zoning boards — Gov. Kathy Hochul had more than a few people wondering: What is she thinking?
She talked about a crisis, a shortfall of housing that drove up prices and was hamstringing business. She spoke of restrictive housing policies meant to keep developers at bay. She wants units, she said, and she is going to get them. She talked about it in terms of legacy.
Two visits to Westchester — one last month and one in 2020 — reveal how the governor is thinking about housing, and how she got here. And a news conference on Tuesday by opponents suggests she’s got a long way to go to win passage.
A grandmother’s lament
In recent weeks, Hochul has crisscrossed the state to sell her New York Housing Compact. And she has gotten personal. Here’s what she said at Pace University in Pleasantville last month:
“You know why this is so personal to me? Because I’m a grandma and I know there are a lot of people getting up in age like I am who have the joy of a baby in the family or grandchildren.”
Hochul’s son, Billy, and his wife, Christina, made the governor a first-time grandmother last May. Little Sofia Hochul wasn’t born in Buffalo, or even Albany, but in suburban Virginia, outside Washington, D.C.
“What a tragedy it is that your own child, an adult child, wants to raise their kids in the same community they grew up in — great education, great public institutions, great private colleges, universities, charming downtowns, outstanding lifestyle. And they have to say, ‘Sorry, Mom and Dad, I have to move somewhere else and raise your grandchild because we can’t afford to live here.’
“That is heartbreaking to me at a personal level, and I want to change that,” Hochul said.
Battle lines drawn: Carrots, sticks, controversy
How she’s going about that — proposing policy carrots and sticks to put shovels in the ground — created instant battle lines. Business groups and developers were delighted. Local lawmakers howled. They envision losing control of the character of their cities, towns and villages.
Business and real-estate groups and housing advocates commissioned a poll. Conducted by Slingshot Strategies in late February, it surveyed 800 registered voters statewide, with a breakout sampling of voters in Putnam and Westchester counties. It found:
- 77% of New York voters — across race, gender, age, geography, income, ideology and party — agree that New York is in a “housing crisis.”
- 72% of New York voters agree with the statement: “It makes sense to put more housing near places like train stations, business districts, and existing neighborhoods.”
- 86% of voters agree that “The cost of buying or renting a home in New York has gotten too high, and we need to do something about it.”
- Democratic voters back Hochul’s housing agenda, 72% to 12%.
- Independent voters support it, 66% to 19%.
- Republican voters support it, 49% to 33%.
The results in Westchester and Putnam echoed those statewide, varying by one or two points.
For Michael Romita, president of the pro-business Westchester County Association, the poll his group helped to finance demonstrated “that housing registers as a top issue with voters, who are overwhelmingly in favor of housing reforms.”
“Adequate housing impacts directly the availability of a skilled local workforce for our businesses and nonprofits and ensures Westchester can remain competitive with our neighbors who have already taken action to modernize their laws,” Romita said in a statement.
Lawler convenes officials, calls local control ‘bedrock’
But Hochul’s Compact has detractors on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the Hudson.
On Tuesday, Congressman Mike Lawler convened a bipartisan group of elected officials from Westchester, Putnam and Rockland counties at North Castle Town Hall for a closed-door, hourlong roundtable on housing.
At the news conference afterward in the blustery wind in front of the columned building, the freshman congressman — tailed by a film crew from the Showtime series “The Circus,” which was following him for the day — said leader after leader had acknowledged the need for housing, but not at the expense of local control.
“Local control is a bedrock in New York state,” Lawler said. “Our supervisors and town boards, our mayors, our village trustees, along with the planning boards and the zoning boards, they make decisions on development and what is in the best interests of their communities with input from the residents. This plan would basically upend that. It would upend the constitutional rights of our local municipalities and force a one-size-fits-all approach to housing. It’s unsustainable. It’s wrong and it violates the rights of these municipalities.“
Assemblyman Matt Slater (R-C, Yorktown) and State Sen. Bill Weber, a Rockland Republican, joined Lawler at the podium. Slater called Hochul’s infrastructure-aid amount “an absolute joke.”
“It’s almost insulting,” Slater said. “But nothing’s more insulting than a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Weber vowed to galvanize support in the legislature to “come out against this entire proposal because it’s bad for our local municipalities.”
Ossining Supervisor Elizabeth Feldman, a Democrat, and Clarkstown Supervisor George Hoehmann, a Republican, opposed the governor’s call to loosen environmental reviews, and spoke about its threat to watershed areas.
Speaker after speaker derided Hochul’s call to rezone a half-mile-radius area around MTA train stations to permit high-density housing, the impact of which could further strain infrastructure, schools and public safety.
North Castle Supervisor Michael J. Schiliro, a Democrat, spoke about the impact of high-density housing (50 units per acre in Hochul’s plan) and the potential for it to bring 6,000 new residents to North White Plains. That influx would cripple the town’s infrastructure, and require $20 million in upgrades to its sewage treatment plant, a figure that represents about 10% of Hochul’s promised $250 million statewide in infrastructure aid.
“We want to work with the governor because we share a lot of goals, but one size can’t fit all,” Schiliro said. “And to have New York State have oversight on local zoning in all of our communities is a disservice to the people that have built these towns and the residents that put us here.”
A group of Westchester officials from the Westchester Municipal Officials Association has already penned a letter to Hochul, calling the plan unworkable without significant changes.
Seeking ‘reasonable solutions’
Pelham Mayor Chance Mullen’s village was not at Tuesday’s press conference. The Democrat’s village is on pace to raise its housing stock by 8% without an Albany mandate.
He, too, has urged a more moderate approach, one that takes each locality’s individual needs and character into account. He said he has reached out to policymakers, including Ruthanne Visnauskas, whose Division of Housing and Community Renewal will create the final Hochul plan, and found her “eager to partner with us on more reasonable solutions.”
Mullen wrote to his constituents that their tiny village could be overburdened by a one-size-fits-all density policy.
“It’s absurd on its face, and clearly the product of trying to create zoning without consideration of the local context,” Mullen wrote. “If I’m being honest, I don’t understand how a provision like this made it into the proposal to begin with.”
A different Westchester visit
How it got there might have something to do with another visit Hochul made to Westchester in September 2020, as lieutenant governor.
She came to Mount Vernon to cut the ribbon at 22 South West, a gleaming $95-million, 17-story tower right next to Metro-North’s Mount Vernon West station, in an area newly zoned for transit-oriented development.
Hochul stood alongside Mount Vernon Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard and Rella Fogliano, president of MacQuesten Development, the builder of the 189-unit tower, where 85% of the units are for those making below Westchester’s median household income of $110,000.
The building is sleek, affordable and right at the station. Mount Vernon rezoned the area to convert fallow industrial areas into mixed-use housing. The site used to be a gas station and required major environmental cleanup. (Critics take issue with Hochul’s Compact which they say permits developers to bypass key environmental reviews.)
Hochul gushed at what had become of the place.
“This is a light,” she said. “It gives people dignity and pride in their existence. They don’t have to worry about whether or not there’s going to be a roof over their head. What they have to worry about is more how they’re going to lift themselves up and be part of a community.”
Hochul talked about the building’s amenities, and those that were planned — the gym, the child-care center — and praised Fogliano’s vision and achievement.
“I know that this community is far better off having this magnificent home for hundreds of people instead of having an abandoned gas station on this site,” she said. “That is exactly what we accomplished here.”
Blurring the line between luxury, affordable
Hochul’s Compact requires housing to grow 1% every three years upstate. Downstate, where she says restrictive housing policies have reduced housing growth to a trickle despite high demand, Hochul wants 3% housing growth.
There are incentives. While the Compact doesn’t require affordable units, localities that approve affordable housing will get double credit. And Hochul is “laser-focused” on transit-oriented development.
“Our investments in our world-class commuter rail lines have connected more people to jobs, and created more thriving downtowns,” she said. “That’s why it makes sense to build new housing in those same areas. That’s what happens in cities across the globe.”
When the governor talks about transit-oriented development, she sounds like she’s describing 22 South West, a project that MacQuesten managing director Joe Apicella said “blurs the lines between affordable and market-rate housing.”
“You can’t tell the difference,” Apicella said during a recent tour. “In fact, I put this building up against any luxury housing building in Westchester County today.”
MacQuesten has other projects in the works, in Yonkers and Brooklyn and Ossining, and one proposed in New Rochelle. All will be affordable, with luxury finishes, Apicella said.
One happy grandmother
Another grandmother is sold on transit-oriented development.
Toni Spearman lives at 22 South West, with her daughter and 2-year-old granddaughter and her 13-year-old dog, Mackey.
“I go to White Plains. I go to Manhattan. I love it. It’s so convenient. You have the 7 bus right here. And then you have the train station,” she said. “There’s no excuse of being late to going anywhere.”
This is affordable, and it’s a game-changer, Spearman said: clean, safe and luxurious.
“When they hear the word ‘affordable’ and the other word ‘housing,’ what most people look at is something like — excuse my expression — Schlobohm, School Street, Mulford Gardens, you know, projects,” Spearman said, invoking the names of massive public-housing buildings in Yonkers. “This is beautiful. Nothing like that.”
She pointed to an electronic display in the lobby, where bus, train and subway schedules are updated constantly, and nearby restaurants are listed.
“I love that,” she said.
MacQuesten is making such a mark in this stretch of Mount Vernon, the city has renamed a stretch of road here MacQuesten Parkway.
The LLC that Spearman sends her rent checks to is called “MacQuesten Takeover,” Fogliano’s nod to the impact she wants to have in the area. The takeover looks like a makeover. A block from 22 South West is The Modern, another MacQuesten project, which is also home to Westchester County’s One-Stop job training center.
Apicella said there’s a learning curve with transit-oriented development, one that he has seen first-hand in the parking level at 22 South West and one that he hopes zoning and planning officials will catch on to.
“I have a minimum of 40 vacant parking spots here,” he said. Between mass transit, Uber and Lyft, tenants buck the suburban stereotype of two cars in the driveway, or in this case the parking garage.
“People who live here don’t need cars,” he said.
Reach Peter D. Kramer at email@example.com.