Do-gooders shot affordable housing in the foot. Now, a solution

Environmental reviews for small projects found to be total waste of time

Inside New York’s Plan to Cut Red Tape for Housing Projects
Mayor Eric Adams and Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich (Getty)

Some excellent movies have been made about big corporations taking advantage of small people. Remember Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich? I wouldn’t mind seeing Hollywood pit Keira Knightley against GE for the company’s dumping of PCBs into the Hudson River. (Instead we have this 14-minute documentary. Alas, no Knightley.)

But no star actress will ever do a film about thousands of housing developments being forced to waste time and money doing environmental studies and defending them in court when NIMBY neighbors sue (which in some places they do as routinely as they buy groceries).

The harm, however, is real. It’s one reason housing is so expensive in New York City, its suburbs and other supply-restricted areas. The people who keep it expensive are usually homeowners, who benefit financially by doing so. But the folks who mandated those studies were people trying to save the planet — a noble endeavor that has had some unintended consequences.

Not just for housing, by the way, but for lots of projects. Even those that are beneficial to the environment, such as replacing a low bridge with a high one so large, fuel-efficient ships can pass beneath it, must submit reams of analysis on projected impacts. And still, someone who dislikes big ships will sue, claiming the studies failed to examine endangered mollusks living under the Goethals.

That’s why it’s a big deal that the Adams administration is rewriting the rules about which housing projects have to run the city’s regulatory and legal gauntlet.

The mayor can make these changes without City Council approval, which means they are almost certain to happen. The new rules would exempt projects with fewer than 175 units in low-density residential areas and those with fewer than 250 units in commercial, manufacturing and medium- and high-density residential areas.

The city analyzed more than 1,000 environmental reviews and found that modest housing projects with certain characteristics consistently had no negative impact. By exempting such projects, the new rules will speed up environmental review by up to two years and save projects an average of $100,000.

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The fifth quote in the mayor’s press release Monday about the so-called Green Fast Track proposal was the most telling.

“There is a clear record of hundreds of past housing projects that have gone through an eight- to 12-month review process that have not raised issues of concern,” said Rob Holbrook, executive director of the mayor’s Get Stuff Built. “We must stop wasting their time filing paperwork that does not contribute to environmental protection or public engagement.”

This is low-hanging fruit and will only move the needle a bit on the housing crisis. Big projects, which are an essential part of the solution, will still have to jump through a million hoops and (to mix metaphors) still might find no water in the pool when they land.

But many more real estate firms and many more parcels of land are capable of producing 100-unit projects than megadevelopments. These smaller projects add up.

Although the mayor oversimplified in his press-release quote, saying, “The solution to our housing crisis is simple: We must build more,” that is accomplished by building faster and making more projects economically feasible. Getting rid of pointless regulation is one way to do that.

No mollusks need die.

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