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Zoning rules strangling Long Island

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Since 2010, Nassau County has gained only 19,000 people (a 1.5 percent increase). And Suffolk County actually has lost population. Meanwhile, Long Island continues to age rapidly.

The suburbs traditionally have lured young adults and their children from cities. But in Nassau County, for instance, the under-18 population has decreased by 7 percent since 2010, and the working-age population (ages 25-64) also has declined.

Long Island is stagnant: It exports people to the Sun Belt, rather than attract people from around the country. Fewer working-age people means a smaller tax base to support the same infrastructure, which likely would lead to higher taxes and uneven services. One reason for this stagnation is that Long Island is not providing enough housing to keep housing prices down — either in its commuter-train downtowns or in its car-oriented areas.

According to census data, only about 5,000 housing units in Nassau and only about 6,000 units in Suffolk were built after 2010. By contrast, almost 15,000 units were built after 2010 in Palm Beach County, Florida, which has about the same population as Nassau. Long Island’s stingy supply of diverse housing leads to high prices, which also drives people out.

Why isn’t Long Island building more housing? As in many other places, local zoning codes treat housing as a scary thing that must be strictly limited. As a result, anyone who wants to turn a vacant lot into a mid-rise, or even turn a house into a duplex, must often ask for a cumbersome rezoning.

How can we change these rules and reverse this trend?

First, allow more apartments and condos. In Central Islip, where I work, most land is zoned either for single-family houses or businesses — even some land closest to the train station. So if you aren’t ready to buy a house and you want to take a train to work, you are essentially excluded from Central Islip. To make Long Island more accessible to the young, allow apartments and condos — at least in business zones. Some blocks near Central Islip’s train station are in what is known as “Business 1” district, which does not allow apartments. But where apartments are next to businesses, everyone benefits. The public gets more housing, and more people can walk to businesses, which also means less traffic and more business revenue.

Second, allow more houses per acre of land. In the parts of Central Islip closest to the train station, all houses must consume roughly 1/6 of an acre of land; in other parts of Islip, all houses must use an acre. Similarly, neighborhoods that are zoned for apartments don’t allow very many; one Islip zone limits apartments to nine units per acre, thus unnecessarily reducing housing supply. To increase housing supply and reduce housing prices, Long Island should allow more houses and apartments per acre, or at least allow three or four houses per building lot.

Third, eliminate front-yard requirements. Suburban zoning codes often require 25 feet to 75 feet of land to be used as a front yard; this land could be used for housing, thus increasing housing supply.

Fourth, change minimum parking requirements. Zoning codes generally require apartments and offices to build off-street parking lots. For example, one district in Islip requires 2.25 parking spaces per housing unit — even for housing occupied by only one person. These rules make parking easy, but every inch of land devoted to parking is an inch that can’t be devoted to housing.

Of course, these reforms would come with costs. For example, if we attract more people to Long Island, we might need more infrastructure. The challenge is to successfully manage those trade-offs.

Michael Lewyn is associate professor of law and director of the Institute on Land Use and Sustainable Development at the Touro Law Center.