VIEWPOINT: A second shot at suburbia

NYC Planning Commissioner Carl Weisbrod: The city's health depends upon the vitality of the municipalities around it.
NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s progressive agenda offers an historic opportunity for Long Island to right itself.

By JOHN L. KOMINICKI // At long last, Long Island and New York City share a problem that isn’t the MTA.

Rapid population growth and soaring rents are forcing the city to look outside the five boroughs for help in building tens of thousands of apartments needed now or promised as part of Mayor de Blasio’s sweeping environmental sustainability plan.

Coincidentally, Long Island needs scores of apartments for its own young people, who are fleeing in record numbers to find affordable, walkable communities elsewhere.

Might the two problems be solved by building affordable apartment projects along the Long Island Rail Road in Nassau County?

The latest Census figures show NYC is growing much faster than expected, with the current population already topping levels not expected until 2020. If current increases continue, the city will exceed 9 million residents long before a target date of 2030.

At the same time, Washington has steadily decreased funding for New York City housing programs, leaving half of the city’s households “rent-burdened,” meaning they spend more than a third of their income on housing. And median NYC wages since the Great Recession have grown significantly slower than rents, which have been stoked by immigration and foreign investment.

As a result, the mayor has pledged to build 80,000 affordable new apartments by 2024, while preserving 120,000 existing affordable units.

That second promise may be the tougher of the two. Affordable units, usually built in exchange for low-cost financing or other government subsidies, almost always have an eventual exit date. Between 1994 and 2012, for example, some 250,000 affordable units converted to market rate, and almost all of the affordable units created during the Koch administration are due to sunset beginning in 2017.

That’s a loss of roughly 11,000 affordable apartments per year until 2037, according to the nonprofit Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development.

Meanwhile, the MTA is chugging along with its East Side Access project, which will open Grand Central Terminal to Long Island commuters, and vice versa, in a short seven years. The transit authority’s proposed Third Track project would make full-scale reverse commuting a reality, allowing Gotham-based techies to help fuel Long Island’s innovation economy.

Although the national migration from urban areas to suburbia has slowed, young people are still 25 percent more likely to move out of a city than into one. By investing in affordable, transit-oriented apartments, Long Island has a chance to restore its 18 to 34 cohort, and with it, the Island’s future economic vitality.

And its environment: Residents of car-dependent communities – Great Neck, for example – have a carbon footprint double that of the average Manhattanite, according to a study last year by UC Berkley. Greater housing density and broader use of public transit can start bringing those averages into alignment.

“The city is the heart of the region,” New York City Planning Commissioner Carl Weisbrod said at a recent Crain’s NY forum. “But our continuing health really depends on the vitality of all our surrounding counties as well as the city itself.”

And Long Island hasn’t been feeling so well lately. Population growth, once among the highest in the country, has dipped below state and national averages. That means fewer people than we need to shoulder the high, and still growing, local tax burden. The pace of corporate relocation and downsizing has also picked up, eliminating good-paying jobs and further reducing the tax rolls. As in NYC, private sector wage growth on Long Island has failed to recover from the recession.

While de Blasio has been chided for the immensity of his vision – “I don’t blame people for being cynical,” he said. “I represent 8.5 million jaded people.” – he is clearly intent on accomplishing what he can. To that end, his OneNY program includes the establishment of a new unit in the city’s planning agency to work directly with local governments on housing issues.

They’ll have their work cut out for them on Long Island, where town and village planners share a collective allergy to projects of regional significance and the locals appear to have forgotten why their communities were founded where they were. (Hint: It was so people could live along the LIRR.)

Still, a NYC-Long Island housing collaborative, backed by our regional economic development councils and state and federal officials, holds promise. We didn’t do such a great job of building suburbia, but NYC’s housing woes offer a unique second chance.

We should not miss it.

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