Opinion: The NIMBYs are wrong: New housing is good for New York’s climate goals

“Invoking environmental concerns to block construction is a classic page in the NIMBY playbook, but when suburbanites shun dense, transit-oriented housing, they’re not just hurting people who urgently need housing in our city, but they are hurting the climate for future generations of New Yorkers as well.”

Adi Talwar

Construction in downtown Brooklyn in November 2021.

Suburban dwellers say the new homes will harm the environment. You could not be more wrong.

With New York in the midst of a severe housing shortage, Governor Kathy Hochul has laid out a plan to get 800,000 new homes built across the state over the next decade. The policy drew instant resistance from the usual suspects: suburbanites in places like Nassau and Suffolk counties. They argue that one of the reasons for opposing the plan is that new housing in the suburbs harm the environment.

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This opposition is wrong. In fact, Hochul’s plan is good for the climate. Invoking environmental concerns to block construction is a classic page in the NIMBY playbookBut when suburbanites shun dense, transit-oriented housing, they’re not only hurting people who desperately need housing in our city, they’re also hurting the climate for future generations of New Yorkers.

Hochul’s plan would require towns served by the MTA to increase their housing inventory by 3 percent over the next three years. To meet this goal, the plan would amend the region’s zoning laws to automatically allow 50 housing units per acre in all areas within a half-mile of a train station. If the plan is approved, developers will be able to build small apartments near transit centers without seeking special zoning approval from local governments.

Dense housing, which this rezoning would encourage, is good for the environment. Households living in apartments with five or more units use approximately half power like those living in single-family homes, according to the US Energy Information Administration, and the effect is even more pronounced in newly built apartment buildings. Limiting emissions from homes is important because residential buildings are a great driver of US energy use: 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide come from residential buildings.

In addition, building homes near public transportation limits harmful emissions. In 2016, 30 per cent of the city’s emissions come from transportation, and 96 percent of transportation emissions come from road vehicles, compared to just 3 percent from trains. Getting people out of cars and onto buses and trains is vital, especially if they have long commutes from the suburbs. environmental groups like the League of Conservation Voters of New York praised Hochul’s plan for this reason, writing that the plan would create “dense, walkable, transit-oriented development that will reduce emissions.”

Hochul’s plan would also speed up the environmental review process that new construction projects must pass before they can begin. Counterintuitively, simplifying such review processes can be important to building a greener infrastructure. In California, environmental review laws they have been used to delay or stop construction of new homes, solar farms, and public transportation. New York must avoid similar delays as it transforms into a more environmentally friendly city.

Hochul’s proposal is not a silver bullet for the housing or environmental crisis. Housing advocates still call for the establishment of eviction protections for good cause and increased investment in public housing. The government must also take other measures to clean up the climate, such as reducing emissions from existing buildings. But even if there is work to be done elsewhere, suburban zoning is a step in the right direction.

State legislators will decide whether to carry out the plan in the coming months, as part of the annual budget-setting process. Last month, Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman expressed a typical opposition to Hochul’s proposal, saying that increasing density would “endanger the suburban character” of his region. Aesthetic concerns such as Blakeman’s should not prevent New York from facing the most serious problems it faces.

We have an opportunity to make progress on both the housing crisis and the climate crisis in one fell swoop. Building dense housing near public transportation not only gives New Yorkers better places to live, but also helps ensure a cleaner climate for the next generation of New Yorkers.

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