America is gripped by a housing crisis. The nation as a whole is short at least seven million single-family housing units caused by decades of underbuilding, and especially short of smaller “starter homes” affordable for younger and less-well-paid residents.
A year ago, I wrote Yes in My Backyard, published here on The River. In that article, I detailed the breadth, depth, and width of the housing crisis, and zeroed in on our region:
The Hudson Valley region forms a microcosm within the national housing crisis: all the pressures affecting affordable housing elsewhere are present here. We’ve seen the influx of new residents moving from urban centers because of the pandemic, for example, and the rising prices that started even before COVID-19 have only accelerated.
The same barriers to countering the housing crisis exist here, as well. In other parts of the country, state legislatures, such as Oregon, have passed new laws that directly attack residential zoning, which more than any other factor has slowed the building of new housing where people want to live and work. Bills have been introduced in the New York State Senate and Assembly that propose a top-down overhaul of zoning regulations, in essence standardizing zoning ordinances across the state that relate to ADUs and removing many of the prerogatives of municipal zoning boards that historically have blocked higher density developments in general, and ADUs specifically.
But so far, New York has refused to act.
And the reality is—aside from a few progressive cities and towns, New York continues to block efforts to meaningfully enlarge affordable housing. In fact, New York is “an outlier regarding the degree of control it allows localities in land use regulation,” according to Noah Kazis of NYU’s Furman Center:
New York stands alone among its peer states—i.e. coastal states with high housing costs and healthy regional economies—in giving its local governments such broad authority over local land use…Essentially every one of New York’s peer states with respect to housing markets—Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, California, Oregon, Washington, and Florida—have adopted state-level reforms to promote housing development in high-cost suburban areas, and the few similarly-situated states that have not are prominently debating the issue.
Gov. Hochul Backs Down
In her January budget for the state of New York, Governor Kathy Hochul proposed the expansion of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in the form of apartments and back yard “granny flats” in areas now zoned exclusively for single family houses, a proposal that has been working its way through New Yorks’s Assembly and Senate in several bills. A long-overdue and progressive effort to that would have overruled local zoning control, which in many communities has blocked such dwellings for decades.
This is a purely political move since none of the economics that led her to consider relaxing these restrictions have changed. The housing crisis is only getting worse, and rents in particular are rising spectacularly. Hochul acknowledged the opposing public reaction in a statement: “I have heard real concerns about the proposed approach on accessory dwelling units and transit-oriented development, and I understand that my colleagues in the State Senate believe a different set of tools is needed, even if they agree with the goal of supporting the growth of this kind of housing.”
The largest pushback came from communities on Long Island, who have long resisted any actions to adopt policies leading to higher-density housing. Assemblyman Michael J. Fitzpatrick of the 8th Assembly District in Suffolk County called the plan the “death of the suburbs.”
Pete Harckman, State Senator of the 40th Senate District, which covers parts of Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess Counties, is continuing to sponsor bill S4547. He commented: “I understand Governor Hochul’s decision to remove the ADU initiative from the Executive Budget; this action highlights our primary concern, which is to get all of the details of the bill right, rather than enact a bill right away. It is important that we keep driving a conversation, however, on affordable housing for our workforce and equitable treatment for our residents.”
What About Hudson Valley Communities?
While the state dithers, Hudson valley cities and towns are making headway in efforts to rethink zoning with regard to ADUs. Woodstock’s Housing Oversight Task Force has focused on the ADU issue, and in June 2022 released a series of recommendations at a Town Board meeting. In particular, they have proposed relaxed restrictions, as reported by Nick Henderson in Hudson Valley One:
Such units are currently permitted in some cases, but the task force expanded the types of allowed ADUs. “We have added in two kinds that someone is eligible to have. One would be an attached accessory dwelling. That means you build on your house and you add a little dwelling unit on the back of your house. Or the second way is what’s called a detached accessory dwelling unit,” [Planning Consultant Nan] Stolzenburg said.
Such acceptable uses include turning a garage into an apartment or building a cabin on the property. “The Housing Task Force was very committed to accessory dwelling units as a really important option to have in Woodstock to give both landowners opportunities and other people who need the housing opportunity,” she said.
The proposed zoning change would allow two ADUs, for example, one attached to the main housing unit and another, a cabin or converted garage. They also propose to allow “tiny houses” that are smaller than the minimum sizes allowed by the current zoning.
Kingston has been involved in a citywide rezoning project called Kingston Forward for several years. On September 15, a review of draft 2.0 of the plan was presented which includes support for accessory dwelling units on zoned single-family lots with the express intention to increase the number of such accommodations. The goal is to incorporate community feedback and move forward to implementation.
Beacon has been involved in a long rezoning discussion with the aim of redrafting the zoning regulations restricting ADUs, including a for-all-intents-and-purposes mandatory hearing with the city’s planning board. (A personal note: I was dissuaded, twice, by officials at the city’s building department, from taking plans for two different plans for an ADU to the planning board because they would be denied.)
On September 19, the Beacon City Council voted to approve amendments to the City’s zoning regulations to reduce the red tape and bureaucracy surrounding ADUs. The vote was tight: four to three in favor. Unlike the opposition to ADUs in Long Island, however, opposition on the Beacon City Council was not directed against increasing density or reducing the value of homes, but instead concerns were raised about whether the new housing would be affordable.
In the end, the changes to the zoning were relatively minor. Detached ADUs are not an “as-of-right” proposition: they still require approval of the planning board, owners are limited to only one such unit, and the unit’s size is limited to the range of 300 to 600 square feet, although the board may approve a small or larger structure where appropriate for buildings built before 1989 (the date of the first ADU zoning regulations in Beacon). An offstreet parking space is required for each unit in addition to the parking required for the single-family residence. The owner must reside in one of the units. Annual inspections of accessory apartments are required.
I spoke with Mayor Lee Kyriacou about the year-long push and the result. (Interview edited for length and clarity).
Stowe Boyd: Could you summarize the long push involved to get to the new zoning rules on ADUs?
Lee Kyriacou: It took a long time, but we got to the right answer eventually. I made a list of potential zoning and planning changes to affect housing, about a year and a half ago, and we picked what we thought were the low-hanging fruit. We thought, oh, we’ll just do accessory dwelling units that’ll be quick and easy, because we already allowed them. We were just going to make it a little bit easier [to get ADUs approved], and it took a year! I’ve gotten a little frustrated by that.
SB: What were the concerns raised that slowed the process? I heard some of the NIMBY comments at the recent City Council meeting.
LK: Interestingly, it was not NIMBY on the right. It was NIMBY on the left.
SB: Yeah, I was surprised to hear progressives on the council question whether ADUs would help housing affordability. I mean, adding more supply should lower price pressures, right?
LK: If the argument is “ADUs won’t lower rents, because we’re only a microcosm of the New York metro area, and there’s going to be more people in the New York metro area wanting to come so it won’t have an impact.” That just becomes a NIMBY argument. That’s all it really is. Because you can’t say we can’t make a local decision because we can’t affect the entire metropolitan region. You have to make the right decision for your community. And know that either the state’s gonna mandate it for everyone or that other communities will kind of see the light and we’ll get there.
So, if those opposed believed strongly in affordability they should have tried to change the regulations to require affordability. But they didn’t. If they had done so, I believe it would have failed at the Council. But they should have made the case, voted, and then accepted the outcome. But that’s not what happened.
Gov. Hochul’s stalled housing plans are victims of political expediency: she opted to take them off her agenda since her Republican opponents would use them against her and other Democrats in the upcoming elections, and she opted to not give them a weapon to wield. After the elections, if she prevails and the Democrats retain control of the legislature, I am certain her administration with move ahead with something quite like what was in her original 2022 annual budget, shifted to 2023.
In the meantime, the housing crisis continues, unabated, and the state has lost another year in squabbling. However, some more foresighted cities and towns have moved ahead, fighting the same battles in miniature that have dominated the housing discussion at the state and national level: Where are people to live if we don’t provide housing?
Accessory dwelling units aren’t a complete answer to our housing woes, but they fall on the side of progress and should be embraced.