LEGISLATIVE AFFAIRS: Not Enough Homes to Sell? Blame the Local Land Use Boards and Their Lack of Education
Alexander Roithmayr | September 20, 2023
The “zombies” of issues left to be decided are poised to walk the halls again this coming legislative year. With the added specter of a Presidential election year, the 2024 New York State Legislative Session will play out while some State Representatives fight in primary elections, providing a backdrop for a legislative session where there is expected to be, just like in 2023, a fight over the budget, Good Cause Eviction and, of course, the housing crisis.
What will inevitably break into fights over forced density increase, transit-oriented development and the affordability issue, the Housing Crisis will play itself out to no end, much to the chagrin of housing advocates, first-time homebuyers and those who make their living providing homes for people. What will definitely go under the radar is a probable cause and possible solution for the log jam that is housing policy in this state.
What you may know is that each municipality in New York State has almost complete control over its zoning and land use. This power of local government is called “home rule.” The power of home rule is, surprisingly, not limited to Mayors and Town Councils, but also extends to the Zoning and Planning Board of each municipality. The boards tasked with reviewing applications are typically composed of community volunteers who have some level of interest or expertise on the issues of land use.
These boards may approve an application, approve it subject to conditions, deny it outright, or hold it over to subsequent meetings after asking for additional information, additional study, suggested revisions, or to accommodate further public comment. The more complex the project, the more likely it will need to repeat this process through multiple boards. It is land use boards where housing goes to die. Most zoning boards in New York State over the past 40 years have opted to deny or delay indefinitely multi-family projects or housing options that were not single-family homes.
These denials or delays by Land Use boards can be prompted by several reasons, including a concern about community character, a fear of increased traffic, or an outright dislike of increasing density. Regardless of their individual reason, the institutional reason that land use boards have not allowed an increase in housing stock over the last few decades is because of a distinct lack of education.
What is not common knowledge is just how little education and oversight it takes to be a member of a volunteer land use board. As of now in New York State, the law requires that each member of the volunteer zoning and planning boards go through four hours of training a year. What that training consists of or oversight on if this training is ever completed is not a requirement of the law. To put this in perspective, New York State has 1,187 cities, towns and villages and each municipality has at least five zoning board members, which means there are more than 5,000 individuals with unknown education levels dictating housing policies. This has been the case for decades.
I choose to believe that the volunteers on these boards are good people—civic-minded individuals that believe in what’s best for their community. I also know it to be true that New York State has record housing costs, a declining housing stock, and rising segregation. It is why I believe that through better accountability and education, these individuals can make better land use decisions on a local level that will truly bring what is best for communities and their downtowns.
Modern literature and studies on the topic of housing and economics have indicated an increase in housing is an almost universal gain for local economies. Recent studies from Long Island and Westchester County have dispelled myths that an increase in housing hurts local school districts, and, in fact, local studies have shown that an increase in housing is a net positive for school districts.
From the Presidential to State Legislative election contests, 2024 will be a robust political year, and the politics around housing will be thick. When we inevitably find our leaders talking about rent for life or the dangers/benefits of ADU, remember and advocate for a common-sense solution—better education for Land Use Boards.