Invaluable lessons from Rochester’s housing crisis applicable to every city

When I made the move from Brooklyn to Rochester, with hopes of starting a family, I naively believed that I had left behind the notorious struggles of New York City’s housing crisis. However, much to my surprise, I soon discovered that my new home faced many of the same issues.

As a renter among the majority in Rochester, where six out of ten people rent, I have encountered a rental market that closely resembles that of downstate New York. Landlords here are able to charge exorbitant prices for subpar housing simply because there are not enough homes available.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over half of renters in the Rochester area are considered “rent burdened,” meaning that more than 70,000 households spend over 30% of their income on rent.

As a member of Open New York, an advocacy group for increasing housing availability, I quickly recognized one of the main causes of this crisis: Rochester and its surrounding suburbs have created a costly, complex, and often illegal process for building enough homes to meet demand.

Fortunately, the city of Rochester is taking steps to address this issue, and we can learn valuable lessons from both their efforts and shortcomings when it comes to solving the housing shortage in other cities.

The Zoning Alignment Project (ZAP) in Rochester aims to eliminate the extensive red tape that currently hinders the construction of homes. This proposed update to the zoning code would allow for the creation of two-, three-, and four-family homes in more areas, including affluent neighborhoods where high rents are the norm. ZAP also suggests expanding the variety of housing options by allowing for the renovation of duplexes and triplexes without reducing the number of units, a practice that is often illegal at present.

Rochester’s approach follows the lead of other cities, such as Kingston and Hartford, which have successfully encouraged the coexistence of businesses and homes in expanded areas. This means having corner stores where the owner lives upstairs and buildings that house both apartments and businesses, including restaurants, shops, and services.

While Rochester’s plan is a step in the right direction, it falls short in certain areas. Buffalo, for example, eliminated off-street parking requirements and witnessed a rise in housing production, along with sufficient parking. Rochester’s ZAP, on the other hand, is likely to impose excessive residential parking requirements, resulting in builders using valuable land for cars instead of housing. These costs will be passed on to tenants in the form of higher rent, not to mention the added pollution.

Additionally, the proposed zoning plan lacks clear guidelines and streamlined processes for building “in-law apartments,” which are small detached structures where elderly parents or adult children can live alongside their families. These types of homes could play a crucial role in tackling the housing crisis, but they will likely remain illegal in most parts of the city.

While Rochester seeks to build enough homes for all its residents through a detailed yet imperfect plan, neighboring suburbs and exclusive enclaves across New York state continue to turn a blind eye, hoping that another municipality will solve the housing crisis for them. This cannot continue. It is time for everyone to contribute their fair share.

Elected officials at all levels of government must acknowledge the reality that when demand for homes surpasses supply, the wealthy will always win bidding wars. Although it is essential to provide assistance to renters, protect tenants’ rights, and crack down on code violations in the short term, the only long-term solution is to build enough homes that are affordable for everyone.

The city of Rochester is heading in the right direction, and it is crucial for our suburbs, county, and state to follow suit and construct more homes. The best time to legalize all types of housing, everywhere, was yesterday. The second-best time is now.

John Pouliot is a member of the pro-housing group Open New York.


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