June 20, 2022

The war on America’s suburbs has opened a new front.  Buried in President Biden’s proposed budget for 2023 is a $10-billion bribe for suburban communities to remove zoning barriers to high-density housing.  The federal government promises the suburbs funding for street improvements, traffic control, and water and sewer lines if they adopt “housing-forward policies” that eliminate single-family zoning and open their communities to “affordable housing.”

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This is no benign endeavor to provide more housing.  It is a strong signal to Democrat-controlled states to gear up the decades-long efforts to bludgeon affluent communities into submitting to “housing justice” and providing their “fair share.”

The New York metro area has been ground zero for efforts to erode local zoning, and if Democrats retain the governorship and supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature, the pressure will be on New York’s officials to enact legislation — first to weaken local zoning and then to destroy it.  Their new tools are accessory dwelling units (ADUs), which can be apartments over garages and standalone dwellings, and large multi-family transit-oriented developments (TODs), surrounding train stations and bus depots.

These efforts are being fueled by housing activists and progressive think-tanks like the Brookings Institution, which declared in a January 2022 article: “By some measures, the suburban counties around New York City have some of the worst exclusionary zoning in the nation.”

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To understand the hostility to the suburbs, some background is useful.  The initial strategy was to usurp local control through litigation brought by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).  It had limited success because to eviscerate local control, HUD had to prove racial discrimination, which by the 1980s and 1990s had largely been eradicated.  So HUD tried other tactics.  In 2009, HUD and a housing activist forced New York’s Westchester County into a settlement to build 750 units of affordable housing due to the county’s sloppy reporting of its federal housing grants.

Then HUD tried to use the settlement as a wedge to expand the agreement and force Westchester to sue individual municipalities to change their zoning.  HUD’s efforts failed due to its lack of statutory authority, due to New York’s constitutional protection of local zoning, and because then–county executive Rob Astorino, now running in the Republican gubernatorial primary to challenge Democrat Governor Kathy Hochul, fought relentlessly to protect the municipalities.

But the housing justice activists never give up.  In early 2022, Governor Kathy Hochul, who stepped into her role on Andrew Cuomo’s departure, tried to sneak into her executive budget mandated ADUs and TODs, both of which would override local zoning.  In the case of ADUs, municipalities would be prevented from using setback or parking requirements.  In the case of TODs, local zoning would be eviscerated and replaced with state control.

Negative reaction from the suburbs was swift.

“This is a sledgehammer to the suburbs,” said Astorino.  “Governor Hochul will abolish single-family residential zoning with this legislation and prohibit protections against overcrowding in our neighborhoods, schools, and streets.  The power to plan a community must be with local elected officials, not dictated by Albany.”

Strong objections were also voiced by the state’s Association of Towns and the New York Conference of Mayors; elected officials throughout the lower Hudson Valley and Long Island; and Hochul’s Democratic primary opponent, Thomas Suozzi.