City of Yes for Housing Opportunity Will Protect New York’s Environment

By Ian Galinson

Denser housing benefits the environment. That’s why we’ll be rallying at City Hall Monday, April 29th, for this year’s proposed City of Yes for Housing Opportunity zoning proposal, a follow up from last year’s successful iteration targeting carbon neutrality.

The City of Yes (COY) initiative is a part of New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ vision for a more equitable and inclusive city. To date, the Adams administration has announced three key COY operatives: carbon neutrality (approved by City Council in December 2023), economic opportunity (currently being reviewed by City Council), and housing opportunity.

The administration’s current focus is COY for Housing Opportunity, which aims to expand access to housing through increased affordability, reformed residential and commercial zoning laws, and a number of other city planning strategies. This zoning proposal will make substantial progress towards addressing NYC’s current housing crisis, and though its name may not suggest it, COY for Housing Opportunity will also bring the city closer to achieving its ambitious climate goals.

NYC has committed to reducing citywide emissions 80% by 2050 (80×50), a bold yet necessary goal that will require multi-sector cooperation and action. The transportation sector is no exception, and it’s here where COY for Housing Opportunity shows the most promise.

COY for Housing Opportunity outlines two strategies that will be particularly useful in curbing transportation emissions: transit-oriented development and the removal of parking mandates. Both initiatives cut personal vehicle miles traveled (VMT), a metric closely linked to automotive pollution. As internal combustion vehicles still dominate New York’s roadways, contributing 80% of NYC’s transportation emissions annually, it’s essential that the city shave down on the distance these vehicles travel.

One straightforward solution to increasing housing stock and reducing VMT lies in reforming the city’s Zoning Resolution to remove parking mandates for residential buildings. New residential developments require a certain number of parking spaces when built—it’s been the law since 1961. These mandates are not unique to NYC, but the problem is particularly evident here, as parking requirements impede upon dense development, promote impervious pavement, and encourage car use.

Car parking also requires sufficient physical space and costs developers exorbitant amounts of money, a combination that frequently leads to fewer, more expensive housing units. In that sense, housing affordability gets sacrificed in favor of the car. Mandatory parking also incentivizes car ownership, which is the opposite of what NYC needs to reach its climate goals

More car ownership means more drivers on the road, which in turn means more emissions. Eliminating, or at the very least reducing, these residential parking mandates will knock two birds with one stone. And the climate impact of removing parking mandates can be complemented by urban planning strategies that bring city residents closer to public transit.

Increasing residential and commercial density around public transit lines fosters vibrant and sustainable urban hubs. This planning strategy—known as transit-oriented development (TOD) when paired with walkability and mixed-use zoning—is a key aspect of COY for Housing Opportunity. TOD expands access to housing through densification. Mixed-use development (a key facet of another COY priority: town center zoning) uplifts local business, elevating the economic livelihood of these hubs. And by ingraining walking and public transit use into daily life, TOD promotes cleaner, healthier lifestyles, benefiting New Yorkers and protecting the environment.

This concept is not new in New York City. Similar TOD principles have been organically applied across the entire city. Dense apartments and small businesses crop up frequently along the 1 line in the Bronx. The same can be said of the M line in Brooklyn. Local organizations, too, are already publishing analytical reports on how and where to integrate TOD planning into future development. One report from the New York Building Foundation indicates the Mets-Willets Point 7 line and LIRR stop as a prime location for more TOD development; the area possesses great access to jobs and cultural activities, yet very few homes—let alone dense residences—exist within a five minute walk of the station. The city can target areas like these to expand affordable housing, or if housing is not the issue, to incentivize an influx of small businesses.

Reducing parking mandates and elevating transit-oriented development are but two facets of COY for Housing Opportunity that will create a more equitable and environmentally friendly New York City. Other components of the plan, such as town center zoning (which would work alongside TOD to uplift mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly communities) and residential conversions of non-residential buildings (which would further densify urban cores) will also support the city by creating livelier communities less reliant on pollutive modes of transportation. To reap these benefits, though, New Yorkers must act decisively.

Passing COY for Housing Opportunity will rely on active civic engagement. We must vote for candidates that prioritize New York’s environment and diverse population. We must also be vocal in our support for COY by speaking out and writing to our elected officials. We did it with COY for Carbon Neutrality and we can do it again for Housing Opportunity. Let’s get to work, New York.

04.29.24 // AUTHOR: Devin Callahan //