A Maximum Housing Compact Endorsement
See the endorsement thread here.
It’s no secret that I’m in favor of expanding New York’s housing supply, particularly in and around New York City, where I live. The beneficial effects of expanding housing supply should please people across the political spectrum, and fixing our dire housing shortage helps people working across many other policy areas solve their issues as well—after all, there is a housing theory of everything.1
And that’s why I’m writing this endorsement of The New York Housing Compact,2 and asking the state legislature to meet the housing crisis head-on by enacting it. Governor Hochul’s proposals represent the kind of bold, generation-defining leadership that lives up to the state’s motto, “Excelsior.”
Some context for those who might need it: New York State is currently undergoing negotiations between the two houses of the legislature (the Assembly and Senate) and the governor to craft the state budget for the year ahead. It’s due on April 1, and after each side presenting their opening negotiating positions this past week, they’re currently hammering out a revised version. The governor presented her Housing Compact laws as part of her proposed budget, and the legislature largely rejected them—that’s why they’re being debated now. (More info on the process here.3)
This endorsement is most specifically directed toward my own state legislators, who should already be familiar with the details of the Housing Compact; I won’t spend much time recapitulating them here. I’m just explaining a bit about why I support them. Finally, to my legislators, I say: thank you for standing for election and serving the public after your victories; I hope you find something interesting in what I have to say.
My state legislators:
Don’t Wait For Perfect, Act Now
There will never be a perfect solution to the housing crisis. In reality, our options are a real, glorious B-minus, or an imaginary A+. The real question is: is this a crisis, or not? If it is, then we must do everything to bring more supply online as soon as possible. That means market-rate housing, subsidized housing, and social housing. It means lifting the 12 FAR cap on NYC residences, enforcing transit oriented development, and more. Turn them all on like a firehose. The time to be picky about housing policy is 2040, after this has been solved.
You can’t do much to solve the housing crisis without much more supply, which the Housing Compact would provide. For example: if you want to support a voucher program (and the Assembly and Senate both do), ask yourself: on which homes will all of those vouchers be used? You can have the most well-funded voucher program in the world, but if you have too little housing the program will be unable to place people well. More housing means more opportunities to use vouchers.4 Most housing assistance programs work like this: they need supply at their core to work well. Absent supply, they will always underperform, no matter how much money you throw at them.
B-minus politics are the hallmark of American, and New York, democracy. B-minus politics recognize that the most important thing a government can do is deliver continuous results, even if they’re imperfect, rather than do nothing until perfection is (never) achieved. Let’s get that supply online now, and start taking advantage of it immediately.
Get Ahead of the Inevitable
New Yorkers of all stripes are increasingly supportive of increased housing supply—and they seem to be in the majority (no surprise, have you seen rents?). This is an ongoing sea change that reflects the overwhelming economic evidence that increased housing supply is vital—not just for lower rents, but so that we can all live the kinds of lives that we want, with the people we want.
If we don’t have radically increased housing supply, we will not be able to coordinate to live near our family, friends, and loved ones. “…aging out of your parents’ house should not have to mean aging out of your community,” as City Councilmember Chi Ossé said this past week, as he endorsed increasing housing supply.
The majority of the public wants more supply, and for great reasons! Give them what they want, and get their votes for it (I know you’d get mine). The legislature cannot just keep ignoring the housing supply crisis year after year. “Ignoring” might seem like a strong claim, especially when both chambers support various kinds of housing legislation (support for NYCHA, voucher funding, etc). But as I mentioned above, unless we get a lot more supply, the housing problem remains in critical condition. Ignoring supply is ignoring the problem.5
Maura Gray points to the more foreboding electoral consequences of continuing to ignore the housing crisis by inhibiting supply increases.
Unintended Consequences of Housing Scarcity
When the city and state imposed massive growth controls in 1961, they inadvertently ensured that we would live in extremely old buildings (with all their attendant problems) today. Did you know that 71% of NYC’s residential buildings were built before 1951, and that the law directly disincentivizes replacing them with newer buildings?6 If you have constituents who complain about aging buildings, this is a problem that is guaranteed by some of the laws that the Housing Compact seeks to change.
These same growth controls, largely in the form of Floor Area Ratio (FAR) caps, also mean that New York City is severely underbuilt. “Outside of Manhattan, 63% of all properties within one kilometer (1KM) of a subway have two stories or less, while 92% are three stories or less.”7
Now, the city can do a lot to fix this—I wrote about how those wheels are already turning here. Now it’s the state’s turn to embrace housing-supply friendly policies, especially by lifting the state’s 12 FAR cap on residential buildings in NYC, and embracing a carrot-and-stick model that holds local governments accountable to state housing targets. Which brings me to my final section…
This is a Moment State Government Was Made For
Speaker Heastie says he doesn’t want to override localities when it comes to mandating housing production, even with support given from the state to do so, and the state senate has concurred in a shocking initial rejection of housing-supply policies.8
But, when it comes to housing production, we know that leaving the issue purely to localities will not work. And it definitely won’t work the way that the Assembly and Senate have proposed—by providing hundreds of millions in incentive payments to (already wealthy) localities that meet housing production targets, but doing largely nothing if they don’t. Keep the payments to the localities to support their growth, but add the Housing Compact’s fast-track appeals process9 as a necessary enforcement backstop.
The state is supposed to legislate for the common good of New York. Albany was made for this moment, if only the Assembly and Senate would embrace it. Give us housing supply because it is in the best interest of the state as a whole—it is within your power as the legislative branch.
Even many housing-related policies don’t work unless you bring more supply online.
Also, see the state constitution here. Article VII, “State Finances,” outlines the state budget process. It begins on page 26 of the linked PDF. You can just read sections 1-6 to get a decent handle on things.
This is especially important if you care about discrimination against voucher holders.
The Assembly’s one-house budget resolutions from both 2022 and 2023 (pg.94 and 86 of the linked PDFs, respectively) rejected Governor Hochul’s proposals to increase housing supply almost identically without any kind of alternative proposals. Call it stonewalling, call it ignoring. But it ensures the continuation of New York’s housing crisis.
From Welcome to the FAR Dome: By How Much is Gotham Allowed to Grow?, the “Overbuilt Gotham” section:
“Many residential structures were completed before the 1961 codes, with 71% of the city’s residential buildings built before 1951.
So, if a developer is going to tear down an older structure to build a denser one, the allowable FAR needs to be sufficiently higher than the current one. However, we see a hurdle to new construction once we compare today’s maximum allowable FARs to the actual built FARs.
Currently, 39% of the city’s residential buildings are above their respective allowable FARs, and 63% are above or within 25%. In other words, for nearly two out of every three residential buildings, it is either impossible or uneconomic to tear the building down to increase housing availability.”
These kinds of bad laws inhibit all kinds of housing—it’s not just a market-rate phenomenon. Want to build social housing, but keep bad FAR caps? Good luck.
Left Hand Meet the Right Hand: New York’s Failure to Implement Transit-Oriented Development; see the “Low-rise Gotham” section.
See the Senate’s one-house budget resolution, pg. 33 of the linked PDF, parts F through R under “Article VII Proposal (S.4006-B)”