Grossman Column: We need to move quickly on affordable housing

A key to dealing with the affordable housing crisis in Suffolk County is having a variety of housing: such as accessory dwelling units, multifamily housing, shared housing, duplexes, small and medium apartment communities. But an obstacle in having diversity in housing types are zoning rules that heavily favor single-family homes. 

“Why Is It So Hard to Build Multifamily Housing on Long Island?” was the title of a 2016 essay by Nancy Rauch Douzinas, president of the Rauch Foundation. “Long Island — world-renowned for single-family homes — has fewer multifamily housing options than other suburbs near New York City,” she wrote. She cited a foundation-commissioned study which found that “land zoned for apartments is vanishingly scarce on Long Island.” She said “enlightened leadership” is necessary to “enable our children and grandchildren, once grown, to live nearby” and also to “attract younger workers if we want the businesses that we need to locate here. The key is to develop multi-family housing that young people can afford.” 

The situation isn’t limited to this area. 

Suffolk is largely zoned for single-family homes, notes Michael Daly, founder and leader of East End YIMBY — for Yes In My Backyard — the group working for affordable housing. Zoning in some areas of Suffolk, “especially on the East End, is limited nearly exclusively to single-family homes and is one of the biggest contributing factors to the high cost of a house here and the availability of affordable housing,” he says. 

“Zoning rules strangling Long Island,” was the title of a 2019 essay by Professor Michael Lewyn, associate director of the Institute on Land Use and Sustainable Development at the Touro Law Center. “Why isn’t Long Island building more housing? As in many other places, local zoning codes treat housing as a scary thing that must be strictly limited.” 

The issue has been bubbling here for years. 

“The Zombie That Is Single-Family Zoning — Destroy It Before It Destroys Us,” was an essay by Atticus LeBlanc in August on Forbes.com. He wrote that “we’re in a situation where we need much more housing supply. We’ve needed it for a long time, and we still need the ability to create more housing much faster. Single-family zoning remains the biggest obstacle standing in the way.” He said “affordable housing advocates” have sought a change for years “knowing full well that systemic racism runs deep in local housing ordinances, and that more multi-family and shared housing increases inventory, i.e., supply, which allows for more options for those who need it most. With the housing shortage now at all-time highs, affordable housing advocates are no longer the only ones decrying policies that favor only nuclear families. Rather policymakers on both sides of the aisle and at every jurisdiction are paying attention.” 

Consider California, where decades ago housing prices hit the roof nationally — and where large numbers of people are now living in tents along streets in many areas. 

As New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty wrote in August: “California needs more housing. More condominiums, more townhouses near mass transit…There is no other solution to the state’s desperate homelessness problem and a deepening housing affordability crisis, according to a broad collection of economists and housing experts.” Earlier that week the California legislature “took a big step” toward “advancing a bill that would allow two-unit buildings on lots that for generations have been reserved exclusively for single-family homes.”

In September, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a package of housing legislation. “California’s New Housing Laws: Here’s What to Know” was the headline of a follow-up New York Times story. Reporting that the “state’s median home price has crept above $800,000,” it said California’s “housing crisis has a seemingly simple solution, according to the laws of supply and demand: Build more housing.” The measures Mr. Newsom signed will allow for the wide construction of duplexes and accessory development units — small dwellings on the same grounds or attached to single-family homes — and other multi-family housing in California.

In Suffolk, Jim Morgo knows a lot about housing — he’s former deputy county executive for housing. For many years his family lived in a single-family home in Bayport. Now, he and his wife reside in a 40-unit condominium, in Bayport, too. Although on five acres, “it doesn’t seem overly dense or overcrowded,” says Mr. Morgo. That’s because “density is not a number, it’s design: the placement of buildings, landscaping, building in harmony with nature.” In contrast, a megamansion on several acres can be “hideous.”

Of condominium life for his wife and him, Mr. Morgo said last week: “It’s wonderful.”