To top city official, housing crisis is a regional problem

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Mayor Bill de Blasio with Carl Weisbrod. (Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office)
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The city’s top planning official conceded on Tuesday that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious affordable housing plan would not solve New York’s housing crisis, and said it is time to have a broader discussion about spurring regional growth.

Carl Weisbrod, chairman of the City Planning Commission, said even if the mayor met his goal of producing 80,000 new units of affordable housing and preserving 120,000 others within a decade, it simply would not do enough to make the nation’s largest city economical for every one of its residents. Real success, he said, would require major help from the federal government, which has shown little interest in changing the way it doles out housing funds.

“For all our efforts, even as we hit—even if we hit all our targets—we won’t fully solve the housing crisis in the next decade unless there is a radical change in federal housing policy—sadly, an unlikely occurrence,” Weisbrod said during a forum hosted by Crain’s New York Business. “So what else can we be doing? For one thing, we should be looking more broadly at the at the metro region.”

His statements are an acknowledgement of an idea being pushed by several housing experts: That by looking just at the five boroughs and not considering the regional nature of housing and jobs, the city is viewing the problem within a vacuum. The concept, reported on earlier this month by Capital, was almost laughed at by a spokesman for de Blasio: “The notion that the mayor of New York City would encourage residents to leave for the suburbs is bad public policy and bad urban planning.”

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But Weisbrod said achieving a truly competitive advantage in the global economy actually requires an expansive, holistic look at the cities and suburbs that surround New York. He suggested the administration and other stakeholders should be “working much more constructively on a regional basis than we are.”

“The city is the heart of the region,” he said. “But our continuing health really depends on vitality of all our surrounding counties as well as the city itself. We know that the number of suburbanites commuting to the city for work is growing. But, more interestingly, the number of New York City residents commuting to jobs outside the city is also growing. That’s good for the entire region.”

Producing more apartments in the suburbs and other nearby cities, he argued, “helps relieve the pressure on our residents.” Injecting resources into improving transit options within the city and through the region is both good for the economy and for anyone looking for a less costly place to live, he said.

“The bottom line is we and the region are mutually dependent on each other and, fortunately, there has been increased recognition from our neighbors that talent, more than cost, is what drives business locational decision making,” Weisbrod said. “If the entire region focuses on attracting, retaining and investing in talent, including effective job training and providing vibrant, affordable places for workers to live, our region and our city will continue to grow and together we will be able to thrive in the year’s ahead.”

One person who has supported this regionalism concept—Seth Pinsky, the former president of the Economic Development Corporation—said during another Crain’s panel discussion later in the day that the reason the mayor would want to widen his view of housing issues is merely a matter of supply and demand.

It’s a sensitive idea to some urban planners, who could potentially interpret it as anit-urbanism. But that’s not really how Pinsky explains it. Rather, he sees suburban sprawl as a compliment to the urban growth de Blasio is aggressively pursuing. He points out that the city’s population density is about 25,000 people per square mile, while the surrounding region has 2,800 people per square mile—comparable to Los Angeles.

“The great thing about New York City is the five boroughs have become such an attractive place that more and more people want to squeeze in to the same geographic area, and that’s driving up costs,” Pinsky said. “Over time, the laws of economics are such that, unless we’re going to build a massive amount of new housing and new commercial growth to accommodate all of that growth, prices will continue to move up. And so we really only have one option in addition to additional density—which I think is important part of the equation—and that is to think beyond the orders of the five boroughs. And one of the great things about this region is that we’re blessed with an incredible transportation infrastructure that leads to miles around us.”

But not everyone is pleased with the idea.

Steven Spinola, head of the powerful Real Estate Board of New York, was quick to question how successful anyone is going to be in convincing suburban towns to allow large-scale development—especially in the vein of providing more affordable housing.

“I have some concerns over that solution,” Spinola said. “I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done. But I live on Long Island. I’d like to see some suggestions of … affordable housing in some of the towns on Long Island. Not only has it been suggested, but there’s been lawsuits to stop and it and so forth. It’s not a simple process of allowing New Jersey and Westchester and so forth.”

Beyond the NIMBYISM, he said there’s transportation costs to consider. Indeed, the Long Island Rail Road can get expensive compared to the subway system. The same is true of the Metro North and NJ Transit trains from New Jersey. Even buses in the Garden State can cost hundreds of dollars per month for commuters living deep in the suburbs.

“I’m not saying out don’t do that,” Spinola said. “There’s a need for affordable housing throughout. But I think that, is this going to be a significant portion of the solution to affordable housing? I don’t think it is.”