Why Is It So Hard to Build Multifamily Housing on Long Island?

Long Island - world-renowned for its single-family homes - has fewer multifamily housing options than other suburbs near New York City. We have fewer rentals than our suburban neighbors in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York; we pay more in rent, and we have less housing near transit stations. Not surprisingly, Long Island's population between the ages of 18 and 34 dropped 16 percent from 1990 to 2014, according to the Long Island Index, and 72 percent of young Long Islanders say they are likely to leave the area by 2020.

Why is it so much harder to build multifamily housing - whether rental, co-op, or condominium - in Nassau and Suffolk counties? To answer that question, the Long Island Index, which is published by the Rauch Foundation, commissioned a former Newsday reporter, Elizabeth Moore, to explore the issue and report on it.

The resulting case study - titled "The Long Campaign: What it Takes to Build Apartments on Long Island" - is now available at www.longislandindex.org. It looks at the experience of one developer, AvalonBay Communities, Inc., an equity REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust) that has developed more than 250 residential communities across the United States - from California to Massachusetts, Washington to Florida. It has built 10 residential communities on Long Island in the past 25 years and developed others in New York City, Westchester and Rockland counties, Northern New Jersey, and Southern Connecticut.

The case study compares the approval process on Long Island with nearby and more distant suburbs and explores the timelines of specific developments. It underscores the inevitable variation among different projects but also reveals patterns; it highlights the relative speed of approval in jurisdictions competing with Long Island as well as the root causes of Long Island's slowness.

As Elizabeth Moore writes: "Apartment development is complex anywhere, but it becomes truly arcane on Long Island, where multiple layers of government exercise authority but information about the process and its rules is often difficult to uncover... What is known is that land zoned for apartments is vanishingly scarce on Long Island, the home of the nation's first single-family suburbs... So just about every apartment development becomes a case for the zoning board. And that alone adds a minimum of one to two years to any development process... An apartment proposal also may require a subdivision proceeding, a legal change which like a rezoning, has public notice and hearing requirements that can take a year or two..."

The good news for Long Island is that the causes for its slowness can be fixed. A fundamental need, for instance, is for communities to consider designating many more locations, ideally downtown, for multifamily housing and to zone them as such "as of right." That will give developers confidence that they can purchase properties in those locations and build accordingly.

In addition to "as of right" zoning, consideration should be given to streamlining the permitting process for housing that conforms with zoning regulations. That will bring about more quickly the desired economic benefits.

The challenge is that it's up to individual communities to decide what kind of housing they want and where. It will, therefore, take a lot of actions by individual communities to change the patterns of the region, which are putting it at an economic disadvantage.

Moving in these directions will require enlightened leadership, but it will also energize Long Island's economy, enhance job opportunities, and enable our children and grandchildren, once grown, to live nearby. That's a powerful set of motivators that should provide incentive to communities to consider their interests in light of regional needs. The two are not separate.

The days are gone when employees moved to where the businesses are. Today the businesses move to where the employees are, as the growing presence of Silicon Valley companies in New York City readily attests.

Long Island needs to focus on attracting younger workers, if we want the businesses that we need to locate here. The key is to develop multifamily housing that young people can afford - and with it the transit-oriented downtowns that attract them as well.

Elizabeth Moore's case study points the way. It's time to consider what she's uncovered and to create a Long Island for the 21st century that maintains our renowned lifestyle and traditional values, one of which is to retain and sustain future generations.

The author is President of the Rauch Foundation.