Hochul, religious groups press housing plans that could override local zoning

Michael Gormley

Originally published in Newsday on .

ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul and religious leaders are exploring separate ways around what they call “exclusionary zoning” that has blocked new housing projects and kept many families out of communities on Long Island and statewide.

Their efforts could allow housing projects to avoid local zoning laws that helped sink Hochul’s original housing proposal 14 months ago. Then, she had called for adding 800,000 new units of apartments and homes over the coming decade to combat what she called a crisis of unaffordable housing. Local government officials and their allied state legislators, however, said Hochul’s 2023 proposal would override local zoning, destroy suburbs, end local control of communities and reduce property values as supply grows.

Hochul's new plan aims to build 15,000 new housing units statewide on state land, with a focus on the high-cost areas of Long Island, New York City and Westchester County. She is starting that effort in her proposed budget being negotiated with legislative leaders.

Her proposed legislation seeks to lease state property for housing development at Farmingdale State, Stony Brook University and on two parcels owned by the Department of Transportation in Babylon.

But the bill notes that if provisions of the act are inconsistent with any local law, “This act shall be controlling.”

Hochul officials said they are still discussing whether state parcels used for housing would be subject to local zoning. They said no decisions have been made and all projects will include discussions with local officials.

The effort also is expected to generate opposition, legislators and independent analysts said.

“Historically, there has been a gray area as to whether the local zoning applies to state-owned land,” Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) said. “If it’s the state’s position they can just build this housing without local control or participation, there should be strong opposition.”

In a separate effort, a coalition of Black ministers supports a bill to build affordable housing on land owned by houses of worship, even if local zoning prohibits it. That would open up parking lots and vacant parcels owned by churches, synagogues and mosques.

Although faith-based housing by religious organizations has been constructed for decades, past projects have relied on zoning variances granted by local officials on a case-by-case basis if housing is prohibited by local zoning.

Housing projects under the Faith Based Affordable Housing Act wouldn’t have to comply with “any other regulations provided in such zoning district” other than height and size and how far the project must be set back from the street, according to the bill.

The bill states that when religious organizations “seek to redevelop their property with affordable housing, providing a sorely needed public good while shoring up revenue, they run into zoning barriers that prevent them from doing so.”

Bishop Phillip Elliott of Antioch Baptist Church in Hempstead said housing costs are driving young New Yorkers away and that land-rich but cash-poor houses of worship need to step in.

“Our own citizens who were born and bred here are leaving our fair state by the thousands,” Elliott said. “Our young people have lost their hope.”

Last week, both proposals gained some support in the Democratic-controlled State Legislature.

The State Senate in its budget proposal favored Hochul’s idea to use state land for housing, but wants to require the housing to be affordable for middle- and lower-income residents. The Assembly said it “supports the concept” of using state land for affordable homes and apartments.

The Senate also said it’s “open to further discussion” of the Faith Based Affordable Act proposal.

The efforts by Hochul and supporters of the faith-based housing bill mirror recent actions in California, from which New York State has borrowed several progressive ideas.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order in January that allows the state to lease its land for housing that “avoids the exhaustive maneuvers used by some groups and local officials to prevent projects from moving forward … Local zoning ordinances do not govern the use of state property.”

Last fall, California also passed a law that allows churches, synagogues and mosques to build affordable housing on their property “by right, even if local zoning prevents this housing,” according the bill’s sponsor.

In New York State, neither effort will be easy, said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies.

“Sadly, regardless of merit, almost any affordable housing proposal that can be spun as trampling on local control will engender some sort of pushback,” Levy told Newsday.

“The fight will take place on a village-by-village, case-by-case basis,” Levy said. “Affordable housing remains a war of attrition, regardless of the state or regional consensus on the absolute need for more.”