Long Island’s housing shortcoming is easy to highlight: There’s just not enough.
Plenty of plans die long before a shovel can reach the ground. At times, developers don’t even bother pursuing a proposal because of the high hurdles to obtain approval.
But along with many unfortunate tales of housing woe, there have been some recent successes. Communities like Mineola and Westbury and Patchogue and Farmingdale have embraced multifamily housing, changed their downtown zoning, added new units, and thrived. There have been promises made and kept, “yes” votes, and ribbons cut.
But not nearly enough of that has happened. As Long Island builds critical industries, from the green and blue economies to life sciences and research to high technology and medicine, as it lures new companies and welcomes new transit options, the region needs more housing to match its opportunities and jobs. The aging Island needs younger workers and a wide range of housing types, price points, and locations.
As the region works toward that goal, hamlets, villages and towns with good stories to tell offer lessons for state officials, including Gov. Kathy Hochul, who are now undertaking a massive effort to expand the state’s housing stock.
In her State of the State address, Hochul called for 800,000 more housing units across New York within the next decade. Her plan includes some simple measures, and some more focused on building rental units in New York City.
But two significant parts of Hochul’s proposal, which still needs legislative approval, are primarily directed at Long Island.
Hochul’s plan would require that villages and towns zone the 1⁄2 -mile radius around train stations to allow a minimum aggregate density of 25 housing units per acre. Interestingly, those specifics were shared in advance of the governor’s address, and officials indicated they were part of Hochul’s plan, but Hochul didn’t lay them out in her speech, nor were they outlined in the accompanying book.
Hopefully, that means there’s room to consider a more flexible approach, possibly employing a range of densities, a different radius, or standards that vary by community. A single number that applies to everyone isn’t the answer. Some train stations are sited in industrial or commercial areas. Others are surrounded by single-family homes. Still others look out upon parkland, or cemeteries, where lots of units might not work.
The complexities are illustrated by Westbury. The village, often held as a gold standard, is zoned for significant density — as high as 101 units per acre — in its train station’s immediate vicinity. But go a half-mile in one direction or another, and it’s all single-family homes. Whether Westbury would meet the state’s standard would depend on how it’s designed. But if Westbury can’t make the grade, few Long Island communities would.
That’s not to say the region doesn’t need more housing near its train stations. Analyzing where land is available, including Metropolitan Transportation Authority property and parking lots, will be key. Similarly important: Focusing on communities where more housing and height makes sense, like abandoned commercial space in Hicksville.
But any solution to our needs must go beyond transit-oriented development. That’s where another part of Hochul’s proposal comes in: requiring villages and towns to add 3% to their housing stock within three years, and giving state boards the ability to override local decisions to reject projects if they don’t.
FLEXIBILITY IS NEEDED
Flexibility, details, and incentives outweighing mandates will be important here, too. The notion of rewarding affordability or multifamily projects is a plus. The governor’s promise of money for infrastructure and community benefits is critical. And the idea of remaking old commercial properties and shopping malls, which Hochul briefly mentioned, should take a larger role.
But the state has to be careful. Would some Long Island towns attempt to fulfill the requirement by choosing to approve projects only in low-income areas, or communities of color? Should the same standards for housing growth apply to the village of Hempstead, which already has significant rental housing, and Lynbrook, which is just starting to build new apartments? And what happens if the economy slows, if financing dries up, or if a community has valid reasons to say “no”?
Hochul has a long road ahead. Already, some local supervisors have expressed concerns, but many seem willing to collaborate. The state must not squander the opportunity. That starts with the governor and her staff spending significant time with Long Island elected officials, developers, and community members. She should meet with village mayors and town supervisors. Perhaps an Islandwide summit, with key players from industry, government and advocacy, would be helpful. Hear what works, and what doesn’t. Be willing to make changes, add more incentives, find a better balance.
Long Islanders have to do their part, too. That starts with recognizing the Island’s housing crisis and their role in the solution. And it means staying away from unhelpful, inaccurate, and ugly tropes.
Political minefields await Hochul. She’d be wise to avoid them, to make this a conversation centered on how the region and state can work together to improve their future, rather than turning it into a battle of wills — a battle she’d likely lose.
Below explore nextLI's interactive map that shows single housing units as a percentage of total units in each area of Long Island.
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