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Criticizing Legislature for inaction, Hochul goes solo to take on the affordable housing crisis

Gov. Kathy Hochul announces executive orders aimed at building new affordable housing units on July 19, 2023.
Don Pollard
Office of Governor Kathy Hochul
Gov. Kathy Hochul announces executive orders aimed at building new affordable housing units on July 19, 2023.

Gov. Kathy Hochul this week announced steps aimed at reducing the state’s affordable housing crisis — and she placed the blame squarely on her fellow Democrats in the Senate and Assembly for the lack of action on the crisis during the 2023 legislative session.

In her State of the State message in January, Hochul introduced an ambitious plan to build 800,000 new housing units in the next decade. But it failed to gain traction among Democrats in the Legislature, whose suburban members objected to a provision that would allow the state to override local zoning laws in some cases.

Hochul withdrew the proposal from the state budget. Later, Senate and Assembly leaders offered a new plan that included tenant protections like the Good Cause Eviction measure, but this time, it was the governor who rejected the plan.

Hochul, announcing an executive order this week to revive plans for 8,500 units of affordable housing in Brooklyn, said the Senate and Assembly forced her hand on using the order to address the problem.

“We announced this bold plan,” she said. “The Legislature was not ready for it and would not commit at the time to the transformative change that New Yorkers so desperately need and deserve.”

Hochul’s order restarts affordable housing projects that were halted when a special tax break for developers, known as 421-a, expired in 2022. The governor, who also blamed lawmakers for letting that program run out, said the new arrangement mirrors what 421-a offered to developers.

“I will not wait,” Hochul said. “I'm going to do everything I can within my powers, using every tool I can find, the ones I'm announcing today and the ones we haven't even thought of yet.

“We're going to jump-start housing now,” she continued.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie responded to Hochul’s criticism in a statement, saying, “We still have a great deal of work ahead of us to address New York's housing crisis.”

Heastie said that means “providing tenant protections” along with “increasing affordable housing and creating more pathways to home ownership.” He said Assembly Democrats are ready to work with Hochul to get that done.

The governor’s actions are backed by, among others, the powerful building service workers union, SEIU 32BJ.

In another executive order, Hochul ordered all state agencies and authorities to take an inventory of their properties and see if any are suitable for conversion to affordable housing.

She said she’s already identified two sites, one at the former state prison in Fishkill, and another on land adjacent to the Javits Center in Manhattan.

In another action, localities can be designated a “pro-housing community” if they meet certain requirements, like easing their permitting and zoning processes. In return, they will receive priority for $650 million in state funding that’s available.

“We’re sending a very simple message that communities that do their part to build housing will get priority for funding over those who will not,” Hochul said.

Not everyone is happy with the governor’s actions.

State Sen. Jessica Ramos tweeted that the announcement lacked any guarantee of labor standards. The Plumbers and Gas Fitters Union, in a statement, called the governor’s plan a “slap in the face” to union members and panned the executive orders as “disappointing” stop-gap measures that they said won’t solve the housing crisis.

The New York Building Congress, which includes major developers and related industries, offered conditional support, saying, in a statement, that “even incremental progress is welcome.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.