State should stop exclusionary zoning in New York suburbs: report

An NYU Furman Center report argues for a statewide zoning framework


More than half a century ago, New York officials created an agency aimed at ensuring zoning policies throughout the state discouraged segregation. But within a few years, the agency, the Urban Development Corp., was stripped of most of its authority to interfere in residential zoning decisions.

Not much has changed since.

“The result is a state with fewer homes, more expensive rents, and starker segregation than it would otherwise have,” Noah Kazis, a fellow with New York University’s Furman Center, writes in a new report. “By some measures, New York has the most exclusionary zoning in the country.”

The report blames local control of zoning and land use for stifling housing production throughout the state, as well as exacerbating racial exclusion in certain areas.

“In some cases, the tools are blunt: like a moratorium on new housing or a ban on multifamily construction,” Kazis writes. “In others, they are more subtle, like lengthy public review processes and zoning tightly tied to the existing housing stock.”

Other states, including New Jersey, California, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Connecticut, have enacted some form of statewide land use reform. Most recently, Oregon and Washington passed laws restricting the construction of single-family homes. Other studies have found that heavier state involvement in land use decisions can lead to less segregation.

“The local nature of planning and greater pressure from multiple local interest groups on residential development exacerbates the tendency to segregate by income,” according to a 2015 report from the Journal of the American Planning Association. “At the same time, income segregation is lower when state governments have more power over land use decision-making processes. Taken together, this suggests planners and policymakers should push for greater state or regional land use authority.”

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New York’s suburbs are “national laggards” in housing production, according to the Furman Center report. Fewer building permits were issued per capita in Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester and Putnam counties between 2010 and 2018 than in most suburban counties in Southern California, the Bay Area, Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the report states.

Rolling back local control of land use, however, would require buy-in from the state legislature and, to some extent, individual municipalities.

“There are probably a lot of impediments, but the biggest is political will,” said Sean Campion, senior research associate at the Citizens Budget Commission. His organization launched its own study on New York City’s land use review process earlier this year, just before a proposal to rezone Industry City was killed by local opposition.

In an interview, Kazis said changes to the state’s role in residential zoning decisions would require a sustained commitment from the state legislature.

“I think that is an important lesson for New York,” he said. “It is not one and done.”

Moses Gates, vice president for housing and neighborhood planning at the Regional Plan Association, said a state-based zoning framework would need to correspond to the varying housing needs of different parts of New York. But he said the question of whether the state should assume a larger role in preventing exclusionary zoning is more of a question of “how” than “if.”

“You can’t have it be an ‘if’ question. You have to have the state government set a framework that says you can’t just say no [to increasing diversity],” Gates said. “If it is done right, it makes sure that everyone is pulling their weight.”