Long Island Suburbs: How Planners Should Treat Age Spots

Levittown's first house.jpg

Long Island is the birthplace of suburbia, from colonial-period Brooklyn to Levittown and beyond, and its economy has survived booms and busts since the 1950s. As stagnant as it may be, if it's anything, it is resilient. Today, its problems mirror those of many older suburban areas scattered across the country, and, like many other suburbs, its problems cannot be solved by simply shoehorning in more development - and more tax revenue. Are policymakers addressing the true thorns in the region's side: Affordable housing, cost-of-living, taxes, racism and fear of change? Planners nationwide could learn much from Long Island if they looked closely at its successes and its failures, and how both evolved.

In the push to expand housing after WWII, Long Island's potato fields became subdivisions that, with the passage of time, became increasingly monochromatic, as well as increasingly expensive. The planners of yesteryear crafted strategies that set national precedents in farmland and open space preservation, while simultaneously working to manage unprecedented residential and commercial expansion. During these boom years, planners urged municipalities to protect open space, resulting in yet another set of national benchmarks in regard to groundwater protection.

Yet the recommendations for an overtly aggressive open space acquisition program were pared down and never fully capitalized upon. Few, if any, of other recommendations leapt from the leather-bound pages of the academic planning texts to become fully implemented. Planning had its moment in the sun on Long Island, but it was quickly eclipsed by special interests with money to spend and projects to greenlight. Today,the academic approach of the previous decades is mostly gone, with the Island's growth being managed by development firms and nonprofit stakeholder groups. Our current long-term strategies lack a detached professionalism that is unhindered by political forces and agenda-driven ideas.

The solution being currently proposed is a call for more “responsible” growth. The question is, if growth got Long Island into this mess, how can it eventually get us out? Multifamily units are being proposed under the umbrella of responsible growth, as is the placement of additional sewers. With the arrival of sewers, it is said that growth will be allowed to flourish, helping to keep the wealthy Millennials, stop the cries of “brain drain” and subsequent regional death, and generate jobs.

At last month's Destination LI conference (#LIREDI hashtag on Twitter), a group of Millennials spoke about the need for sewers as well as the need for additional growth of multifamily-type units. It was nice to see a new generation become interested and invested in Long Island, and even go so far as to say that this next generation will “fight” to stay in the region. But there was little mention of the fact that there has been an overall 89% increase of units from 1989 to present, or that groundwater quality is compromised as a direct link to overdevelopment, or about the region's sole source aquifer that dictates appropriate density levels.

What are the realities of building truly affordable housing in suburban Long Island's aging suburbs? How can costs be pared down so developers are enticed to build without relying on density to generate profit?

Planners by trade have to be optimistic, but they must also be realistic when assessing a region's needs and growth strategies. The current approach by developers and stakeholders is fueled by optimism, but studies the issues on a shallow level instead of working to solve our long-established problems.

The biggest one? In each town and village hall across Long Island, and in our Nassau-Suffolk region, municipalities often grant density in places where it is simply not appropriate. If an area has a comprehensive plan in place, development should follow the usage that was already determined. But, more often than not, local government awards variances that drastically increase density under the guise of “responsible growth”. These variances add up to a high density sprawl that is worse than the traditional sprawl that they were meant to replace in the first place. They fly in the face of the professional planning efforts undertaken on Long Island over the previous decades. We need a return to professionalism if we are going to create legitimate and workable solutions.

Urban planning is not merely saying that development is “responsible,” it's assessing our regions needs by quantifying market trends, environmental data and resident feedback. Planning for our future should not be about catering to one age demographic, but rather, about addressing the needs of all Long Islanders over the course of the future decades. Instead of planning sessions focused on urging downtown development to attract jobs, planners should be justifying why development should be placed in a given downtown, or anywhere else.

Many tout the expansion of transit, but few address the marked lack of population density that's necessary to drive the demand and fiscal support of such expansions, or discuss the MTA's frequent capital budget shortfalls. Planning should be crafted from a scientific and methodological approach, not from buzzwords, faulty surveys or ideal conditions that are neatly summed up on a PowerPoint slide.

Saying we need affordable housing is easy. Execution of the concept on Long Island has been extremely difficult for decades. Yet this uncomfortable reality is not discussed on panels. Our regional problems require us to confront our balkanized districts, dissect the unbalanced economics of our real estate development, and deal with a heritage of racism furthered by exclusionary municipal jurisdictions.

Sheer density won't change sixty years of racial division, jumpstart our stagnant economy , or upgrade our infrastructure to 21st century standards. And, despite what county officials and a myriad of developers are saying, more sewers alone will not solve our woes. We need a sewer plan that works in conjunction with a robust open space plan, which in turn works to complement our approaches to economic development.

In other words, we need true regional planning.

To execute our plans, we need professionals. In recent years, municipalities have cut planning staff, and outsourced critically important planning functions to politically-connected boards and stakeholder groups. In Suffolk, the County merged a once nationally-acclaimed department of planning with the economic development department. Despite what anyone says to the contrary, crafting strategies for economic development is not planning. It is a piece of the puzzle, but there are important distinctions that have been forgotten in recent years.

The convenient narratives of 'brain drain', downtown revitalization, and smart growth make it easy to stand behind a podium and tout the benefits of pure, unhindered economic development. But the elephant-sized problem in the room remains. Only this time, instead of being in a single-family home, the elephant's room will be in in a shiny, new multi-family complex.

Richard Murdocco regularly writes on land use and policy issues. A collection of his published work can be found on www.TheFoggiestIdea.org, and you can follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.

Flickr photo by Sean Marshall, Weber House in Hempstead, Suffolk County, on Long Island. A plaque in front of the house, built 1947, commemorates one of the first homes in Levittown, New York, considered America's first planned suburb.

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Understanding "housing affordability" at the SYSTEMIC level

There is an intractable problem involved in "housing affordability".

The guarantee of systemic housing affordability is actually freedom to convert rural land in the region, to urban use, without too much "planning gain" being captured by hold-out land owners.

This results in splatter development, because of course developers try and obtain sites from rural owners who happen to be selling them anyway, and if there is no growth boundary or zoning that gives them an oligopoly power, they sell at close to true rural values, just as if the new buyer was expected to keep the land in rural use even though they are actually a developer.

But as soon as you try and "conserve rural land" and "prevent splatter development", you create at least a tenfold increase in the prices for which sites within the growth boundary sell, within a few years. This is simple reality. And the whole land market behaviour is changed - upzoning increases site rents faster than people trade down in living space.

This is why the correlation in city data sets, between urban density/average housing space per household, and median/average housing cost, runs in the direction of higher density/lower average housing space = higher median/average housing cost. At one extreme you get Hong Kong, median multiple 15.

Within each city, of course you get nodes of higher density "housing", but if the city is growth contained at the fringe, NO housing anywhere will be "affordable", not like housing just about anywhere in Houston IS affordable. A CBD condo or apartment in Houston is far more affordable than the same thing in any city with a growth boundary.

Manhattan has been far cheaper than it now is, but it is still a lot cheaper than Hong Kong and a lot cheaper than London. In fact it is cheaper than virtually every city centre in the UK, even small cities. This is an excellent demonstration of the effect in the UK, of very tight growth boundaries around their cities.

New York, the sprawling urban area (not NYC municipality) has never had an official UGB imposed on it but its urban land market has started to behave like one with a boundary, because at its fringes, it is constantly coming up against local opposition to further development.

The above article is right to call for "regional" co-operation, but unless the effects I am describing are understood, New York risks harming itself like the UK's cities have, with high land rents and zero-sum wealth transfers burdening its actual productive economy and labour force. If you MUST contain urban growth and preserve farmland, then you need to exercise unpalatable powers like compulsory acquisition or stiff targeted land taxes to stop the blowout in land prices. Otherwise the growth boundaries/zoning represent a "regulatory giving", which really does not deserve defense under the traditional "property rights" argument.

Long Island Suburbs: How Planners Should Treat Age Spots

Town of Hempstead is in Nassau County, not Suffolk. (BTW, the Town of Hempstead as oppose to the Village of Hempstead makes up 2/3 of the population of Nassau.) I should know since I grew up there.