At first glance, Mayor Eric Adams’s extensive new citywide rezoning plan, meant to encourage new housing, may seem like more of the problematic same. It emphasizes, for instance, the construction of yet more “permanently affordable” new apartments through the dubious means of permitting more units to be built if some get set aside as “income restricted.” This “inclusionary” policy is a recipe for increasing some prices to subsidize others. New York is already awash in income-restricted housing—including 176,000 public-housing apartments—but remains mired in a perennial housing crisis.
Adams’s rezoning plan does emphasize a key element of a healthy housing market, however, and one long overlooked in Gotham. New York needs not just more housing if it is to attract and retain newcomers; it needs more types of housing—not just single-family-home districts such as those that dominate large stretches of Queens, or the high-rise apartments with affordable set-asides in Brooklyn that former mayor Bill de Blasio promoted. New York needs to let builders provide a wide array of housing options. To its credit, the Adams rezoning plan (which will need city council approval) moves in that direction.
The plan’s proposal to permit “shared living” arrangements is solid. It would “adjust current rules that mandate larger unit sizes” and allow “more smaller-sized apartments,” whose residents would share kitchens and bathrooms. These are dormitories by another name, perhaps, but they will let tenants choose between lower rents and privacy. Such arrangements have a Gotham history: think of lower East Side tenements, whose residents relied on public baths. We need not go that far, but lower-cost arrangements create natural affordability: more units on the same real estate.
Adams would also encourage the construction of small residential buildings atop commercial enterprises—think of laundromats and pizza parlors. These kinds of arrangements are also part of the city’s history. In Brooklyn, between 1870 and 1940, developers built 45,000 one- to four-family structures with ground floor retail space. These were the places where immigrant entrepreneurs ran businesses downstairs and slept upstairs.
Flooding from Hurricane Ida in 2021 left 11 New Yorkers dead from drowning in illegal basement apartments. Adams’s rezoning plan proposes not a crackdown on such units but a path to legalization. No one knows how many such units exist, but the group Basement Apartments Safe for Everyone, at the Pratt Center for Community Development, has counted some 30,000 in Brooklyn, Queens, and Washington Heights. It estimates a potential for about 200,000 such units if this housing option were legalized. Details about safety matter, of course; any legal units will require two exits or some equivalent protection. But the mere act of seeing opportunity here reflects some policy imagination—especially because thousands of New Yorkers are already living in such units.
Adams’s plan also embraces the emerging national openness to “accessory dwelling units”—so-called “granny flats” built in side-yards or backyards of single-family homes. The proposal permits such units to be “up to” 800 square feet—and thus also potentially smaller. These units would provide rental income for homeowners, just as two- and three-family homes have historically done. They would permit older owners to downsize—and make underutilized homes available to younger families. Housing policy is about more than housing; it’s also about creating options.
Not all of Adams’s proposals are likely to prove practical. It will not be physically easy to convert old office buildings into apartments, for instance. But giving the green light to those who want to try makes sense.
And rezoning has proved effective in the past. The NYU’s Furman Center found that the Bloomberg administration’s “upzoning”—permitting industrial areas to be used for housing, for instance—created the potential for 80,000 new housing units. (Admittedly, there is no way to tell exactly how much of the city’s increased housing stock—it grew from 3.2 million in 2000 to 3.4 million today—owes directly to upzoning.)
New York has long needed housing policy that goes beyond government subsidization. Adams’s plan is a step in the right direction. Now if only the mayor would rethink rent regulation and public housing!
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