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The Browning of Suburbia – LexBlog


After World War II, GIs came home from the war, went to college under the GI bill as a nation thanked those who survived for their service, and married. These budding new families needed a place to live, and so suburbia was born. Green lawns and trees, Air. Quiet. Privacy. The squalor of city life, too many people in too small a space, was replaced with detached homes and backyard barbecues.

But as nature abhors a vacuum, urban sprawl found its way into suburbia. Big malls, and then mini malls sprung up on busy commercial streets, as baby cities arose to consume the once-bucolic neighborhoods. Low-rise apartments and office buildings were constructed to house the people who staffed and serviced the suburban families, seeking out any remaining open space to fill it to the extent zoning laws would allow, until the trees were cut down to make room for parking spaces and fast food restaurants.

Air was fouled by exhaust fumes. McMansions took the place of more humble homes as people felt compelled to show the Joneses how important they were. And god forbid there was a dandelion to mar the lush over-fertilized, over-watered lawn in a can.

And so a movement arose to stop this urban sprawl, this overbuilding, this destruction of air quality, water quality, habitat and open space. Protecting the environment mattered. Saving endangered species mattered. Reducing garbage mattered. Air quality mattered. Saving the aquifers mattered.

And now it doesn’t.

New York needs Ms. Hochul and the Legislature to deliver that kind of relentless focus on housing. The way to begin is to do everything possible to spur housing production.

Mara Gay, the unduly passionate if math and science challenged New York Times editorial board member, sees an immediate need for housing, but lacks any awareness of the plethora of problems that it could cause if addressed foolishly.

Something must be done.
This is something.
This must be done.

What does Gay propose?

For one thing, this means coming up with a new kind of tax incentive for developers that encourages more truly affordable housing. The state’s previous program, known as 421a, mostly created units for high-income people even as it cost taxpayers $1.7 billion per year. Albany allowed it to expire last year without replacing it.

On the one hand, real estate developers somehow figured out that they make more money  renting abodes for more money than less. This might seem too obvious for words, but it eludes people like Gay, who believe they are charities dressed in wolves’ clothing. All they need is an incentive to make economics turn on its head.

On the other hand, tax incentives aren’t magic beans, but come at a cost. The tax burden in New York is already staggering, not to mention no longer deductible from federal taxes. As with most governments, most of the money is squandered by incompetence, greed and corruption, so let’s add yet more burden to the top because it’s not as if that burden will be suffered by the handful Gay cares about. And they surely won’t leave, as so many New Yorkers have done and will continue to do because of the cost of living.

In December, the governor said she would build 800,000 units of housing in the state over the next decade. That’s good, but the harder task is to push for zoning and tax changes across the state that will allow the region to build the multifamily housing needed to truly end the crisis and let New York grow.

The narrative is that zoning laws were created to keep out black and brown people. Some were, decades ago, but they’re long gone and there are many black and brown people who have since come to enjoy the same fresh air and green trees as their predecessors. But the zoning laws have long since served a very different purpose, to protect the quality of the environment and the quality of life, including those same black and brown (and white and red and green) people who worked hard to enjoy the solicitude of their own home.

Voters will know Ms. Hochul and the Legislature are serious about the housing crisis when they start fighting — hard — to build multifamily housing in suburban areas like Long Island, where it is decades overdue. The governor backed off similar proposals last year, wary that doing so might alienate voters in Long Island, where multifamily housing has historically been unwelcome. In the end, Long Island voted Republican anyway.

The idea was floated that the state would enact laws that would undo local zoning laws that were put into place to preserve air and water quality, trees, open spaces, from the encroaching urban sprawl. Once open space was lost, it was lost forever. More people meant more traffic, more waste, more pollution, less habitat, worse water and air, and cutting down the trees. One of the most burdensome laws in suburbia required onerous environmental review to protect these things. This was the epitome of progressive legislation a generation ago. Did it suddenly become an evil when Mara Gay wanted to turn suburbia into urbia?

The other day, someone asked why people were so antagonistic toward change that would help so many. The short answer was that it was done mindlessly, cavalierly, without any thought of the damage it would do in the process. Mara Gay doesn’t care. Mencken would chuckle.


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