early and often

Kathy Hochul Just Picked the Toughest Fight in Politics

Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Will New York ever be remotely affordable again? It’s easy to imagine that, at this point, housing stock will always outstrip incomes to almost comical degrees. For even the upper-middle-class household, buying a house in the five boroughs is a laughable proposition, and prices remain stubbornly high in the suburbs. Median rents in Manhattan have broken $4,000 a month and Brooklyn isn’t very far behind. If prices are beginning to cool from their 2021 and 2022 peaks, little tangible relief — the sort that would allow most New Yorker to only spend a third of their income on rent — appears in sight.

Governor Kathy Hochul, in her first State of the State address since narrowly winning reelection in November, recognized this to a degree. Some of what she called for on Tuesday would have been untenable for most politicians a decade ago, particularly those with political bases beyond the city. Hochul wants to build aggressively and do it in communities that have traditionally been deeply resistant to new housing construction; if she succeeds, she will be the first governor in modern times to shatter a local bipartisan consensus that has blocked housing in affluent suburbs, especially on Long Island. “New York faces a housing crisis that requires bold actions and an all-hands-on-deck approach,” she declared.

What’s actually bold — if Hochul follows through and the Democrat-run State Legislature doesn’t foil her — is her push to up-zone the suburbs. The city must increase housing supply, but land is far more limited here. There’s only so much density that can be added to Manhattan, if there’s still enough to be done in low-lying parts of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. The counties of Nassau and Suffolk are another matter. For more than a half-century, Republicans and Democrats alike have furiously beat back any attempts at sustained apartment-building, maintaining towns that are, both physically and demographically, mostly unchanged from their 1960s selves.

Last year, Long Island politicians defeated a Hochul effort that would have legalized accessory dwelling units — apartments in basements, garages, and attics — in single-family homes. ADUs, as they are known, can’t solve the affordability crisis on their own, but they are a first step toward creating housing for working-class people who can’t find cheap apartments in the suburbs. Long Island is ripe for building and has an efficient commuter railroad to easily ferry residents to Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. High-rise apartment complexes at Long Island Rail Road stops could help slacken demand for housing in the city.

Hochul, who aims to build 800,000 units across the state, plans to create new targets for home creation in three-year cycles, which will apply to all villages, towns, and cities in the state. Municipalities in the region serviced by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, including the city, would have a target of 3 percent growth in new homes over three years. If localities do not meet their targets or don’t adopt certain targeted approaches with a “proven track record for facilitating growth,” developments may be approved “even if existing zoning restrictions do not allow it.”

This last piece will undoubtedly provoke political clashes. Hochul and Democrats in Albany should stand firm and override localities when necessary, as Democrats in California have begun to do in a belated fight to overturn decades of restrictive zoning laws. Though the elections in November were a setback for Democrats in New York, they offered a silver lining for pro-development forces. In the State Legislature, Democrats were mostly wiped out on Long Island but were able, through wins elsewhere, to keep their veto-proof supermajorities in the State Senate and Assembly. Going forward, Hochul will not have to worry about placating as many moderate Long Island Democrats in the Assembly and Senate. She may have the votes for her housing policies, even with Republicans ascendant in both Nassau and Suffolk.

It was noticeable, however, that Hochul neglected any mention of aggressively strengthening tenant protections. Like her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, she is close to the real-estate industry, and lobbyists for developers and landlords have long fought efforts in Albany to help tenants. Last year, there was a rare moment of unity between progressive Democrats and real-estate interests when both of them backed a new housing-voucher program for the homeless, known as HVAP, or the Housing Voucher Access Program. Hochul shot it down last year, citing high costs, and it is plausible Democrats in the Legislature could seek to revive the program this year, folding it into the state budget. In her address, she was silent on the plan.

Where progressives will have a much tougher fight with Hochul and centrist lawmakers is on Good Cause eviction, legislation that would place restrictions on rent hikes and prevent landlords from denying lease renewals to tenants who faithfully abided by the terms of their leases. It would bring a version of rent stabilization to tenants throughout the state and could significantly stem the tide of evictions and, over time, cut down on homelessness. Unlike Hochul’s attempts to up-zone the suburbs, Good Cause would cut into the profit margins of landlords. She could, in theory, sign the legislation if it makes it through the Senate and Assembly, but she will expend no political will to move it along. Housing activists were furious on Tuesday that she did not cite Good Cause as an answer to the affordability crisis. For now, she is wary of alienating one of the most powerful lobbies in the state.

For any of this to happen — housing construction on Long Island, Good Cause eviction for tenants — tremendous amounts of political capital will have to be expended in the coming months. Progressives battling for tougher tenant laws will have to repeat their performance in 2019, when they forced Cuomo to sign bills that saved rent-stabilized housing stock. Hochul must be made to do their bidding; on her own, she’s liable to slink away. And while momentum now rests with those who want to open up the suburbs to housing construction, backlash is inevitable. Beating back local power brokers — those most committed to the NIMBY credo — may be the toughest thing Hochul ever does.

Kathy Hochul Just Picked the Toughest Fight in Politics