Economics, Cities New York City, Housing
July 2nd, 2024 5 Minute Read Testimony by Eric Kober

Written Testimony before the New York City Charter Revision Commission

Chair Scissura and members of the 2024 Charter Revision Commission, thank you for the opportunity to provide this written testimony. As a former director of housing, economic and infrastructure planning at the New York City Department of City Planning, where I spent over three decades of my career, I have firsthand knowledge of the city’s housing needs and how past efforts to address those needs have fallen short.

For years, New York City has contended with a severe and worsening housing shortage. The Housing and Vacancy Survey, a study of housing conditions released this February, shows the overall rental vacancy rate in early 2023 at 1.4 percent, the lowest in more than 50 years.[1] This represents a disastrous situation for New Yorkers who need a place to live and for people who want to move to the city. There’s not enough housing to go around. Only the affluent can afford to compete for scarce units.

Newly enacted state housing legislation and New York City’s City of Yes for Housing Opportunity (CHO) zoning amendment (if passed as proposed) should meaningfully increase the number of permits for new housing units compared with the status quo.[2] However, Mayor Eric Adams’s “moonshot” goal of 500,000 units in a decade remains far out of reach unless the city can create a regulatory framework producing large numbers of new housing units that can be sustained over time. In a forthcoming brief for the Manhattan Institute, I conclude that multiple changes must occur, including amendments to the city charter that would allow private property owners to obtain a zoning change more easily.

The great error of the 1961 comprehensive rezoning of New York City was to replace a zoning framework flexible enough to accommodate surges in housing demand with one that assumed a stagnant population. This new system would need major revision if the population started to grow again.[3] Market prices in many parts of the city showed that the underlying land was more valuable than the zoning implied. Because that value could no longer be unlocked by building more densely after 1961, it was instead diverted as higher resale prices for existing homes.

Mayor Adams has acknowledged this fundamental shortcoming. Last September, he said, “The 1961 Zoning Resolution drastically changed the way our city would build housing . . . for decades to come, and those changes were not for the better. [T]he 1961 code limited growth rather than encouraging it—ultimately, leading to a massive housing shortage, one that we are still reckoning with 62 years later.”[4]

The Department of City Planning relies on private applicants to identify locations appropriate for zoning changes, who then personally fund the considerable costs of obtaining the desired change. Applicants are required to hold land and pay for representation at multiple levels of government. Time-consuming and expensive requirements, like the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR), racial equity reports, and Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH), deter many property owners from entering the public review process.

A 1989 revision to the City Charter added borough president review to ULURP, extending the public review timeline by 30 days for applications involving a single community board. The formal part of the zoning change review process now lasts seven months or more. The current ULURP schedule anachronistically assumes borough presidents and borough boards must wait to receive community board resolutions through U.S. mail, whereas in reality constant electronic communication occurs between borough presidents, board members, and the community. The extended review window increases applicants’ costs without providing meaningful improvement in the quality of borough presidents’ and borough boards’ comments on applications.

To facilitate the goal of increased housing production, Section 197-c of the City Charter should be amended to combine the community board, borough board, and borough president ULURP review into a single 60-day period. This would prevent further unnecessary delays in rezoning applications, allowing housing to be built faster and at lower cost. A 60-day period would not materially affect the ability of borough presidents, borough boards, community boards, or constituents to provide input. It would instead reflect the reality that communications between these parties occur frequently and instantaneously through modern methods like email.

I appreciate the opportunity to provide this testimony. I hope that the Commission finds it useful as it considers ways to address New Yorkers’ concerns, particularly the pressing need for more housing.

About the Author

Eric Kober is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI)* and an adjunct lecturer at the Yale School of Architecture. Before joining MI, he served as director of housing, economic and infrastructure planning at the New York City Department of City Planning. He has written several MI issue briefs and op-eds on housing reform, particularly in New York. Kober holds master’s degrees in business administration from the Stern School of Business at NYU and in public and international affairs from the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

*The Manhattan Institute does not take institutional positions on legislation, rules, or regulations. Although my comments draw upon my research as an Institute scholar, the views represented today are solely my own, not my employer's.

[1] U.S. Census Bureau, “2023 New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey Selected Initial Findings,” February 8, 2024.

[2] Eric Kober, “Hochul’s Housing Deal Will Help New York’s Affordable Housing Crisis, but Not Solve It,” Manhattan Institute, May 29, 2024. The “CHO” amendments are described at “City of Yes: Housing Opportunity,” NYC Department of City Planning (NYCDCP). The mayor’s “moonshot” goal was announced in “Mayor Adams Unveils "Get Stuff Built," Bold Three-Pronged Strategy to Tackle Affordable Housing Crisis, Sets "Moonshot" Goal of 500,000 new Homes,” NYC Office of the Mayor, December 8, 2022.

[3] I wrote about the 1961 vision in “Zoning That Works,” City Journal, October 1, 2020.

[4] Mayor Eric Adams, Transcript: Mayor Adams Delivers Address on Future of Housing in NYC and Holds In-Person Media Availability, NYC Office of the Mayor, September 21, 2023.


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