The governor’s quest, to force suburbs around New York City to build more housing, is meeting with resistance.
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Mihir Zaveri, Luis Ferré-Sadurní and
Scarsdale, N.Y., a village about 20 miles north of New York City known for Tudor-style architecture and large, lavish estates, may seem like an unusual setting for an aging, five-story parking garage that neighbors have described as “an eye sore,” “decrepit,” “unsafe” and “seedy.”
But for over 40 years the site has survived multiple attempts to raze and redevelop it. The latest push, in which the village is considering plans to build hundreds of apartments there, including some that would have been affordable to people with lower incomes, has been in limbo for three years after some Scarsdale residents complained that new residents could strain schools and burden taxpayers.
“The second any opposition came up, it was largely put into suspended animation,” said Tim Foley, a Scarsdale resident and chief executive of the Building and Realty Institute, an industry group pushing for more housing in and around Westchester County, which includes Scarsdale.
Resistance to bigger development is a familiar dynamic in suburbs like Scarsdale, where single-family homes and sprawl are distinctive features. Now, Gov. Kathy Hochul, a moderate Democrat, is taking on the daunting task of forcing suburbs to embrace housing, in a mission to get 800,000 units built over the next decade and ease the state’s housing crisis.
Ms. Hochul would join officials in places as far as Maine and California that have increasingly clashed with communities resisting development.
The headwinds she faces are intense. The New York City suburbs are considered the birthplace of American suburbia: New Yorkers began moving in droves to communities in Westchester County and on Long Island to escape urban life beginning in the 20th century. It created segregated enclaves that resisted new development — and racial integration — for decades.
By one measure, Westchester County and Long Island have allowed fewer homes to be built per person in the past decade than the regions around nearly every other major U.S. city, including San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Boston.
Ms. Hochul’s plan has touched a political third rail and drawn the anger of Republicans and some Democrats, as negotiations over the state budget come to a head this week in Albany.
So far, the governor has not backed down. In an interview, Ms. Hochul said she hoped to cut through the “hysteria” around her plan: “The status quo is not working.”
Leaders of the Democratic-led State Legislature criticized her approach as heavy handed. Several local officials argue too much new housing could strain sewers, roads and other local infrastructure.
Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, a Democrat who represents Scarsdale and other parts of Westchester County, said the “proposal would change the complexity of our county in a way that doesn’t make sense.”
The stakes for Ms. Hochul, who was elected to her first full term in November, are high. Her plan could further alienate voters on Long Island who have already swung heavily toward Republicans and potentially estrange Democrats in Westchester who played a crucial role in her narrow victory last year.
Still, the governor appears ready to spend significant political capital on a plan that could potentially define her legacy.
“My own kids had to leave the area in search of a lower-cost opportunity because New York got too expensive and a lot of it is the housing cost,” she said. “This is for employees, this is for families we’re trying to help stay here and also senior citizens.”
Some New York City suburbs, including several in New Jersey but also some on Long Island and in Westchester, have supported building more homes. Westchester’s largest cities, including New Rochelle and Yonkers, have helped fuel much of that construction.
But the need for housing continues to outpace the current pace of development. A December report from the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit group, estimated that New York needs to add more than 817,000 homes over the next decade to keep up with population growth and ease overcrowding.
The governor’s plan has two main components. One would force every community to expand its housing stock every three years by set percentages — 3 percent downstate and 1 percent upstate. Another could force communities to allow at least 50 homes per acre on average to be built within a half-mile of many Long Island Railroad and Metro-North stations.
If a city or town improperly rejected a development and did not meet the percentage targets, a fast-track process could be triggered that could overrule local opposition.
In Westchester, over two dozen mayors and town supervisors signed a letter last month criticizing Ms. Hochul’s plan. State Senator Shelley Mayer, a Democrat from Westchester who represents Scarsdale, said that the governor failed to talk to communities in the lead-up to her plan. She added that it was “unfair” to suggest “every community in Westchester or the suburbs is anti-new housing or anti-low income housing.” In a statement, the village of Scarsdale said it was “eager to hear and see what plans come from Albany.”
In Scarsdale, where some 18,000 people live, boutique shops line the village center and mansions peek through the trees of the surrounding hilly neighborhoods. When the village, considered one of the wealthiest in the nation, was linked by train to Manhattan in the 1800s, local officials quickly placed restrictions on apartments. In the 1960s, the village board resisted a plan to build low-income or middle-income apartments because doing so could create an “isolated urban ghetto.”
The total number of homes in Scarsdale — about 5,750 in 2020, according to the Census Bureau — has barely changed since 1990.
The eclectic, small-town feel is part of the appeal for many residents who remain skeptical about development.
Van Furniss lives in Scarsdale and commutes by rail to Manhattan, where he works as a senior major gift officer at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. He questioned the need to bring multifamily housing to the garage site.
“It seems odd that they want to bring this to a bedroom community,” he said on a recent Friday.
Benvinda Silva, 52, the owner of a hair salon next to the garage, said she worried that a new development would be disruptive.
“While there are benefits, it would be chaotic, too,” she said.
Before the redevelopment proposal was put on hold three years ago, residents in the village circulated a petition saying that they did not think the school system could handle more children.
“There is no need for this type of unwelcome surprise,” the petition stated.
Under the governor’s proposal, Scarsdale would need about 170 more homes than its 2020 count to meet its housing target. It would also need to rezone several areas around the rail station to meet the 50-unit-per-acre threshold, which could be a drastic change — some nearby areas currently allow for as low as two units per acre, village maps indicate.
The mayor, Jane E. Veron, whose term ends this week, could not be reached for comment, a spokesman said. The village also did not answer questions about the status of the garage redevelopment.
Ms. Hochul’s administration and housing supporters acknowledge that many places may not have the money or the capacity to build vast amounts of new units. But they also say the consequence of not keeping up with population growth means housing prices will continue to rise, fueling problems like homelessness and making the state less attractive to businesses.
Mr. Foley said that without mandates, in places like Scarsdale, where money to incentivize building can be less enticing than maintaining the status quo, projects like the redevelopment of the parking garage will continue to fail — a position supported by a 2020 paper from the New York University Furman Center.
The issue has animated lawmakers across the political spectrum. Republicans, particularly on Long Island, have united behind calls for “local control, not Hochul control.” Some left-wing Democrats appear to support Ms. Hochul’s plan, but are also pushing her to support other tenant-friendly bills, including one that could limit sharp rent increases.
Democrats in the Senate and Assembly have suggested a gentler approach could work just as well: They have proposed creating a pot of up to $500 million for communities that agree to build more.
George Latimer, the Democratic county executive in Westchester, said his opposition is partly about logistics. Some towns along the Hudson River, for example, might be unable to build housing near train stations next to steep slopes, he said.
“If you want to go back 50, 60, 70 years, there was explicit racist and exclusionary policies, deed restrictions, redlining, but you don’t see that in Westchester today as you did before,” Mr. Latimer said. He added that for suburbanites, the attraction of their communities was partly the ability to control development.
“We want a certain style, we want a small village with a small, little street,’” he said.
But some neighbors, like Zack Garnett, 29, a Queens resident who works as a guitar repair technician in Scarsdale, say it’s time to force suburban communities to change. He parks in the parking garage, which he thinks would be a great place to live instead.
“This is one of the most expensive places in the country,” he said of Scarsdale, adding, “There’s a housing crisis.”
Grace Ashford contributed reporting.