Opinion | Is This Railroad for the Rich?

Garden City, a leafy chunk of suburban Long Island, is served by four train stations on the Hempstead Branch of the Long Island Rail Road. Residents can reach New York’s Penn Station in less than 45 minutes. Next year, thanks to billions of dollars in public spending, L.I.R.R. trains will start running to Grand Central Terminal, too.

That’s great news for people who can afford single-family homes in Garden City, where the average price is approaching $1 million.

But the state is squandering its investment in the expansion of the commuter railroad by allowing Garden City and other Long Island communities to maintain strict limits on multifamily housing construction.

Local resistance to development has become the norm across the United States, especially in the wealthy metropolitan areas along the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts where housing is needed most. Other coastal states, recognizing the urgent need, are imposing limits on local control. Experts say New York stands increasingly alone in doing nearly nothing to compel local governments to make room for housing.

Building around Long Island train stations would let more people reside in communities with high-quality public services, and in proximity to good jobs. It would also help to redress the long history of racist housing policies that have made Long Island one of the most racially segregated suburban areas in America.

It would additionally be good for the environment, which could use the help.

But Nassau County, which includes Garden City, is one of the most difficult places to build housing in the entire United States. Over the past half century, as the population of the New York area expanded by roughly 30 percent, Nassau’s population shrank by 5 percent.

Some local governments in the state, including New York City, have chosen to encourage affordable housing development through permissive zoning, financial incentives or policies that require big projects to include affordable units. Nassau County’s neighbor Suffolk County is taking some steps to encourage development, including around its railroad stations.

Such measures are less common in the wealthy Nassau County areas closest to New York City. A 2017 report by the Regional Plan Association found that multifamily construction was not allowed in the vicinity of 16 of the Long Island Rail Road’s 56 stations in Nassau County — including two of the Garden City stations. Around other stations, development is strictly limited, and it can take decades for a project to move forward.

Bellerose, another Nassau County community on the Hempstead Branch, did not permit any new housing between 2010 and 2018, according to a report on Long Island’s aversion to construction by Noah Kazis of the Furman Center at New York University. This is an official policy: Bellerose allows the replacement of existing housing only on a one-to-one basis. The village code explains that allowing additional housing “would be detrimental to the integrity of the village and to the health, safety and welfare of its residents.”

Debates about affordable housing often focus on New York City, and understandably so. The city contains a larger share of its region’s population than other major American cities, it has the capacity to support dense development and it does need to build more housing. Per the Regional Plan Association, the city prohibits multifamily development in more than six square miles of land within a 10-minute walk of a train or subway station.

But the city’s suburbs, especially in underdeveloped Nassau County, need to build more, too. There is plenty of room. Nassau’s population density is 41 percent lower than Staten Island’s, and it is 24 percent lower than that of Essex County, N.J.

Housing construction is one of the nation’s major economic activities; Long Island residents would benefit by participating. A larger population would consume more goods and services. Density also drives innovation and makes everyone more prosperous.

One approach to the problem, pioneered by Massachusetts, is to build a bypass around local regulation. The state requires local governments to expedite reviews of affordable housing projects, and it allows developers to appeal rejections. Another approach, more common on the West Coast, is to require local governments to develop plans that make room for affordable housing. As the housing crisis has deepened, some states have adopted broader measures. In 2019, Oregon established a duplex minimum — in place of single-family zoning, cities with at least 10,000 residents must allow at least two units of housing on each lot.

Such policies are helpful. They are also totally inadequate to the scale of the crisis. New York should leapfrog other states by taking advantage of its unparalleled public transit infrastructure. Specifically, the state should pursue its own version of a law that had been proposed in California that would have required populous cities to allow mid-rise apartment buildings around rail stations.

The Regional Plan Association estimated in 2017 that undeveloped land around mass transportation hubs and downtowns in the tristate area could accommodate nearly half a million new residents — including the additional schools and other public services that would be needed.

Such a law should also make it legal to build multifamily housing on land near transit stations currently occupied by single-family housing.

New York needs to confront the fact that laws limiting development to single-family homes are public subsidies for wealthy households at the expense of less affluent households. Communities like Garden City are maintaining the affordability of single-family housing for a lucky minority by prohibiting more valuable uses of land near train stations. Local governments are operating housing subsidy programs for millionaires.

Democracy is no defense for the behavior of these local governments. There are no citizens of Garden City; its residents are New Yorkers. The state must balance the powers that it delegates to local governments against the broader public interest. Spending billions of taxpayer dollars so rich people can have an easier commute is not the right balance. New York is building a better railroad. It needs to make sure that less affluent New Yorkers are able to use it.

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