Kathy Hochul's war on the suburbs may get her kicked out of NY's governorship

During the Obama administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was the primary weapon used against single-family zoning in the suburbs.  The left is now leading the assault with state laws to supersede local zoning laws and force multi-family projects into suburban neighborhoods.  Their efforts in New York could reverberate across the nation if successful.

Proposed New York State Senate S.4547 would override local zoning to permit the construction of accessory dwelling units as small as 550 square feet on residential property for the purposes of rental.  Existing accessory dwelling ordinances, which have been adopted to accommodate family members living in these units, would be voided immediately, completely usurping municipal home rule powers for single-family zoning districts.  Municipalities would be prevented from imposing barriers to the units, including parking requirements, setbacks, or allowable residential density.  This is a legislative camel's nose into the tent to institutionalize state authority.

In a January 25 letter to the Westchester County Municipal Officials Association, primary legislative sponsor Senator Peter Harckham, a Democrat, wrote, "[W]e can move forward in our shared goal of fighting the housing affordability crisis.  Moreover, I am thrilled [that] Governor Kathy Hochul agrees and has included our legislation in her Executive Budget proposal while earmarking $85 million to legalize these units and ensure they are safe."

Hochul's plan to expand "affordable housing" by fiat goes further in imposing mandates and eroding local zoning.  Her executive budget allocates $25 billion over five years to create 100,000 affordable dwellings.  In addition, once local zoning has been overridden for accessory dwellings, the governor plans to introduce legislation to force construction of multi-family residences in and around Metro-North train stations and bus stops.

Opposition to S.4547 and Hochul's longer-term proposal was swift and focused on the sanctity of home rule, which has fostered New York's economically heterogeneous suburbs and exurbs, and the imposition of heavy-handed one-size-fits-all state control.

"This is a sledgehammer to the suburbs," said Rob Astorino, the former Westchester County Executive and a leading Republican contender to challenge Governor Hochul in November.  "Governor Hochul will abolish single-family residential zoning with this legislation and prohibit protections against overcrowding in our neighborhoods, schools, and streets.  The power to plan a community must be with local elected officials, not dictated by Albany."

Strong objections were also voiced by the state's Association of Towns and the New York Conference of Mayors.  "You're not really going to be able to control what's happening in your community," said Peter Baynes, director of the Conference of Mayors.

Exactly.  Home rule is the key to the distinct individuality of New York's diverse municipalities, which gives New Yorkers a wide variety of choices of where to live.

The right of home rule played a major role in protecting New York's Westchester County from HUD's initial attempt eleven years ago to force the county's municipalities to build staggering amounts of affordable housing.

Some background is useful to parse the current political engagement.  In 2009, Westchester County was slammed by a HUD settlement agreement to build 750 units of affordable housing to fulfill HUD's police to Affirmatively Further Fair Housing (AFFH).  By 2013, when the county was close to fulfilling its obligations under the settlement, HUD upped the ante to 10,768 units, a number derived from a 2004 Rutgers study.  Despite HUD's best efforts, Westchester County executive Astorino refused to give an inch on the original agreement.

During the period, HUD sent a letter to every municipality in Westchester County demanding that the people running it satisfy HUD's specific assessment.  Because of the protection of home rule, the municipalities were able to resist HUD's threats.

With the battle lines drawn, the fate of S.4547 is unclear, despite the Democrat supermajorities in the state Senate and Assembly.  Opposition to HUD's encroachments helped Astorino win two terms as County Executive in a 3-1 Democratic county.  Politicians in New York's suburbs, who are predominately Democratic, aren't lining up behind S.4547.

Hochul is vulnerable, even in a bright blue state.  She's unelected, having assumed office after Andrew Cuomo's forced exit, and in November 2022, she will face Mr. Astorino, Congressman Lee Zeldin, or Andrew Giuliani.  She also faces a primary against Congressman Thomas Suozzi, who represents Nassau County on Long Island and has been vocal in his opposition to S.4547.  She needs the suburban votes from Suffolk, Nassau, Putnam, Rockland, and Westchester Counties.  Why antagonize these voters with attacks on their property rights and home values?

Stranger is Harckham's sponsorship of S.4547 because he represents leafy, affluent suburbs in Westchester County — unless he is hoping to be Hochul's running mate as lieutenant governor.

The fate of S.4547 and Hochul's proposed executive budget has national implications.  If they fail, there's hope for the blue states, because it means that people are waking up to the incursions against their liberties, freedoms, and property rights.

Linda R. Killian is a New York local Republican chairman and financial analyst.


Image: Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York via Flickr, CC BY 2.0 (cropped).

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