In November, New Jersey state senator Troy Singleton introduced Senate Bill 4142, a bill that would nudge municipalities across the Garden State to legalize accessory dwelling units (ADUs). The idea is simple: if a homeowner wants to turn her unused attic, basement, or garage into an extra apartment, antiquated zoning regulations shouldn’t stand in the way. Toward this end, the bill sets standards for how municipalities can and cannot regulate ADUs. If successful, it could spark an ADU building boom in New York City’s North Jersey suburbs, bringing much-needed housing to the region.
The bill follows on the heels of a similar bill passed in Connecticut this past summer, whose diverse coalition of supporters underscores the broad appeal of ADUs. Progressives rallied behind opening up affordable housing opportunities in once-exclusive suburbs. Conservatives could appreciate ADU preemption as a form of deregulation, restoring the property rights of homeowners. And groups such as the AARP pushed hard on behalf of the many senior homeowners who might like to use ADUs to age in place. Thanks to the Connecticut bill, ADUs could begin cropping up in New York City’s Nutmegger suburbs as early as next year.
Finally, a similar bill (S4547) has been winding its way through the New York State Legislature since February. As with the bills out of neighboring states, the New York bill aims to establish baseline rules that would protect homeowners interested in building ADUs: municipalities wouldn’t be allowed to subject them to onerous public hearings, excessive permitting fees, or unnecessary off-street parking requirements. At the same time, the bill would block short-term rentals, enforce an owner-occupancy mandate, and subject new ADUs to fairly strict eviction rules, all of which could potentially temper uptake.
Nonetheless, if the New York State bill passes, it could pave the way for an ADU renaissance in New York City’s in-state suburbs. Estimates by the Regional Plan Association (RPA) suggest that Westchester and Nassau counties have the potential for as many as 41,000 and 92,000 ADUs, respectively. The boom could even extend to the Big Apple’s outer-borough suburbs: a similar estimate puts the potential number of ADUs built in New York City at 114,000 over the next two decades. As a former city planner in Queens, I don’t doubt these numbers—I received near-weekly calls from homeowners seeking to build ADUs, as did most of my outer-borough colleagues.
Admittedly, nothing stood in the way of New York City allowing ADUs on its own accord. Yet so far, the city has largely focused on legalizing the tens of thousands of undocumented ADUs that already exist. In 2019, the city launched a pilot study to legalize existing basement units in East New York, even providing eligible homeowners with the financing needed to bring the de facto ADUs up to code. In 2020, Mayor Bill de Blasio signaled his plan to scale the program up to the city as a whole. While the results have so far been underwhelming—too many rules and regulations likely made participation in the program unappealing—it was an admirable first step.
If New York City has seemed uninterested in the push to legalize ADUs that’s sweeping the nation’s other big cities, that could soon change—and not simply because Albany may soon force the city to act. Encouraging ADU construction was one of the few points of agreement among the Democratic contenders in New York City’s 2021 mayoral election. Mayor-elect Eric Adams has even called for the removal of regulatory barriers standing in the way of new ADUs. In a metropolitan region where insufficient housing development and rising demand have sent housing prices and rents skyrocketing, this could be very good news.
The irony of New York City’s sluggish embrace of ADUs is that they’re a housing typology the city once had in spades. Take a walk around Park Slope and you will see brownstones sitting atop basement apartments. Sneak a peek into an open front door in Astoria and you’ll spot stairways to attic apartments. Ride a Citibike around Pelham Bay and you can find backyard garages discreetly turned into apartments. These were the modest, largely hidden accessory homes that once kept homeownership accessible to working- and middle-class New Yorkers and the market flush with naturally affordable apartments. With any luck, what’s old will soon be new again.
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