Zoning, Planning and Housing Crises

April 9, 2015 Land use zoning laws have been an accepted part of our environmental traditions at least since the passage of “The Standard State Zoning Enabling Act” in 1924. This remarkable act was accepted almost without change by most states. In New York City zoning began even earlier in 1916.

          There is no question that zoning has been used by suburban communities to restrict the development of housing desperately needed by poor people. It has also had a terrible impact on struggling middle class families.

When Hasidic developers complain that zoning has prevented them from developing housing for their people they have grounds for complaint. Unfortunately they either believe, or act as if they believe, that resistance to the housing they desperately need is simply the result of anti-Semitism.

          The charge of anti-Semitism when combined with demands for dramatic changes in zoning on what is often marginal land encourages angry rhetoric by suburban residents. This rhetoric is then used in court to “prove” that anti-Semitism is the sole basis for community opposition to high density housing.

          We would be better served if our highly organized Hasidic community were to join with other minorities to challenge existing zoning and to demand the creation of comprehensive regional planning and economic incentives to provide adequate housing for all people.

          The shortage of affordable housing is just one example of a problem that transcends New York’s suburbs. It is the result of worldwide political and economic trends. Economic activity is increasingly concentrated while land use controls prevent desperately needed high density housing in central cities.    

            In order to preserve land and to avoid suburban sprawl we need much more appropriately designed and located high rise development.  Unfortunately safe high density housing is expensive. It requires masonry construction, sprinklers, fire walls, and so forth. Who will pay for it? Lower land costs would, of course, make this kind of housing much more affordable. But Ramapo and Rockland cannot solve this problem without regional planning and financial assistance.

In Ramapo we also have roads built during much simpler times. Just take a look at Monsey where we now have terrible traffic and totally inadequate roads. We also have a sewer system that was built for a low density community and a sewer commission that has ignored the growth that has outstripped the capacity of our sewers.

The rapid expansion in our Ramapo population without any consideration of the impact on our roads and sewers is a result of poor and corrupt political leadership. The town supervisors who sit on the board of sewer district #1 have been collecting their illegal salaries for years without ever confronting our sewer emergency. Even the need to pay a heavy fine imposed by the federal court for extensive sewer overflows into the Saddle River has had no impact on business as usual.

          The high cost of housing is one of the major reasons that people delay marriage. It is nothing short of a human disaster. Today it is not uncommon for people to spend half of their income on housing. As one might expect, people with limited income put off marriage and more and more children are born out of wedlock. And we know that single parent families are far more likely to have children with educational deficits.

          The birth of children out of wedlock is not a problem in the Hasidic community. But even the existence of a largely cash economy, tax evasion, and the reliance on state and federal assistance can’t prevent poverty in this community. So the bitter conflicts over zoning that we see in Ramapo today are inevitable and growing.

The obvious solution, as I suggested, would be for wisely located higher density housing in New York City and our suburbs. Unfortunately while our suburbs are absorbing the people forced out of central cities they have limited financial resources. Or to put it another way, the wealth that is generated in our center is increasing poverty in the periphery. It is also putting us on the road toward bankruptcy.

We need a political movement that demands a solution to our suburban housing crisis. It is unfortunate that it is far easier for the leaders of the Hasidic community to charge others with anti-Semitism than it is to join a struggle for comprehensive regional planning, government expenditures and state tax policies that support viable suburban communities.

Robert I. Rhodes, Ph.D., Chairman, Preserve Ramapo