Today brought us a fresh housing plan from Eric Adams and his deputy Maria Torres-Springer that is meant to enable the construction of 100,000 homes over 15 years. “If we do this right,” he announced, “decades from now, New Yorkers will see this moment for what it was: a turning point.” Although he said, “This is not tinkering around the edges,” look closer and it’s mostly a set of small-to-medium-size zoning changes that (he hopes) will add up — bites around the edges of a crisis that could eat well into the whole thing. He’s calling his reforms an attempt to make the “City of Yes,” and that yes is aimed at pushing away administrative roadblocks to building tall, building more, and building economically.
Many of the reforms are overdue no-brainers that nonetheless will take some brains to push through. The ridiculous parking minimums now in place for new buildings, requiring underground spaces that (the city says) cost developers up to $67,500 per spot, would be tossed out. (Almost no one, from right-wing free-market types to lefty car haters, thinks they’re a good idea.) He’s proposing that we loosen zoning restrictions on development around transit corridors, which would, for example, allow big apartment buildings to go up near the trailing outboard ends of subway lines, thus funneling residents into town more readily. We’ll get taller buildings atop one-story retail strips — these would make a big difference in a lot of low-rise outer-borough neighborhoods — and developers will be able to build more bulk in many places if they add affordable apartments. Several changes to the code would also enable more conversion of office buildings into apartments, which (given the changed dynamics of work since 2020) will surely have to happen one way or another. And we’re in line for more ADUs, those little backyard buildings often used to house grandparents or tenants, which would revolutionize life in Queens.
All of this is subject to City Council approval and, by extension, ground-level neighborhood infighting, and some aspects of the plan will get a lot more pushback than others. Large buildings full of affordable housing often face a fight in affluent neighborhoods from residents who say it’s about preserving light and air but really just don’t want disadvantaged people around. Likewise upzoning around transit, which is sometimes perceived to bring traffic.
And you do have to pause at an aspect of those residential conversions. Adams has, in the past, talked about rezoning parts of midtown from single-use to mixed use, a move that would likely finish off the garment district (why would a landlord rent to a small business full of immigrants running sewing machines, when he can sell that loft floor for $5 million?) and will surely face a fight over the area’s jobs and history. The plan will also allow more basement apartments, and some of those have, in very recent history, been deadly during flash floods, although legalization is meant to make them safer.
Nobody believes all this will go off without a fight, and something’s got to give. We are short many hundreds of thousands of homes, we have a six-figure number of refugees coming into a shelter system that is flat-out overwhelmed, the Feds won’t build another inch of housing, and virtually everyone who has a deal is paying way too much. We need a vast number of apartments, soon. So the question now is: Can the Adams administration, which has been fairly good about tossing out ideas, get better at the boring, crummy business of outreach and wheedling that transforms rhetoric into brick and concrete and thus avoid the fate of Kathy Hochul’s housing plan? “We’re perfectly imperfect, but we’re dedicated,” Adams said in his speech. He has two years and two months to go before the city judges him on just how imperfect and dedicated.
Correction, September 22, 2023: An earlier version of this story said that Mayor Adams had proposed revising the building code to allow windowless bedrooms in new conversions. Although smaller rooms and apartments will allowed in some circumstances under his plan, he’s not proposing a change to window requirements.