New York City Mayor Eric Adams is proposing to make the city's housing approval process a little less labyrinthine.
"The City's decades-long housing crisis requires policies that respond with urgency and help New Yorkers secure safe, quality housing as quickly as possible," wrote Adams in an introductory letter to the plan. "There's no time for creaky bureaucracy, outdated policies, and endless documents that do not help New Yorkers."
Hitting that moonshot goal would require New York City to more than double its rate of housing production. Housing advocates have given Adams' plan some muted praise for moving things in the right direction. But they say it lacks important details and omits necessary, politically controversial reforms.
Adams is "throwing out a number but not actually producing a plan that explains in any credible way how he would get there," says Eric Kober, a former city planner and scholar at the Manhattan Institute. "To achieve the goal of half a million new homes, there would have to be more ambitious process changes. Even more important, there would have to be very ambitious zoning changes."
In New York City, a developer trying to get a property rezoned to build more housing has to go through three separate approval processes: an environmental review to see if their proposed building will damage the environment, a land use review, and then building permitting.
Surviving the gauntlet of all three of these processes is no easy feat.
The city's environmental review "is really layered, intensive process. Only California's is worse," says Alex Armlovich, a housing policy analyst at the Niskanen Center. This review can last up to two years and requires a project sponsor to perform 19 separate environmental analyses.
The city's land use review process requires a proposal to go through multiple layers of review from community boards, borough presidents, the City Council, and eventually the mayor. Often, projects don't survive or emerge much reduced or with added requirements that they pay for community benefits or include affordable housing units.
Once a project is certified, the land use review process is required to be completed within 210 days. But the pre-certification process has no required timeline and can often take years, as project sponsors continually revise their projects to address comments made by city staff and the public.
The combined burden of the first two processes is estimated to increase monthly rents at new buildings by $430, according to one study cited in the Get Stuff Built proposal.
Adams is proposing to streamline the pre-certification land use review process by reducing the number of required informational meetings and allowing community boards earlier opportunities to make comments.
On environmental review, the proposal suggests exempting smaller housing projects of 200 or fewer units from environmental review and simplifying the traffic analysis that's required of applicants. But the proposal says both ideas require further study, however, meaning those changes might not come to pass.
This is all estimated to reduce developers' costs by $2 billion and unlock 50,000 units of housing.
Adams is also proposing dozens of tweaks to the building permitting process so that developers of all types of buildings can quickly and easily get permits from City Hall through a "one-stop shop" online portal run by the Department of Buildings.
The Get Stuff Built proposal comes a few months after Adams released his "City of Yes" initiative that promised to cut regulations on small businesses and housing development. Adams, at least rhetorically, has been quite loud about the need for more housing construction in the city to lower the costs of living.
"I think he's acting within the scope of what's currently feasible and then trying to push that edge [of what's feasible] further out," says Armlovich.
Kober takes a dimmer view, saying that Adams is avoiding proposing real changes that he knows will get stiff opposition from anti-development activists and politicians in the city.
"It's a press release strategy to get everyone praising him and avoid conflict. Conflict is a necessity if you're talking about landing 500,000 new homes in a decade," he tells Reason.
Kober says Adams needs to pare back the city's Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, which requires housing developments that benefit from a zoning change to include at least 25 percent below-market-rate units for lower-income renters. Those below-market-rate units are a huge tax on new housing and make development financially infeasible in all but the most expensive neighborhoods.
Armlovich likewise says that New York City needs to massively increase the amount of housing that can be built without any environmental or land use review. That requires sweeping zoning changes that Adams is not proposing.
Given how long city officials have ignored the need to boost housing construction rates, the Adams plan is still an encouraging early step.
"Finally elected officials are saying, wait a minute, we need to start building houses," he Armlovich says. "The winds are changing. The actual hard mechanisms have not moved yet."
Rent Free is a weekly newsletter from Christian Britschgi on urbanism and the fight for less regulation, more housing, more property rights, and more freedom in America's cities.