Since the 1960s, there has been a raging debate about the proper place of multifamily housing on Long Island. Opponents warn of “Queens creep,” implying that such housing will lead to massive, ugly apartment blocks, rampant crime, overcrowded schools and roads choked with traffic. Proponents cite the lack of housing options for the young and for empty-nesters, constraints on economic growth and lost opportunities to revitalize rundown town centers.
For decades, this debate has played out passionately before local town councils and zoning boards. Despite the uproar, however, the dire predictions of Queens creep have never materialized. Take, for example, the development of Avalon Rockville Centre.
This 349-unit community opened in 2012. Since then, instead of rising crime, Rockville Centre has experienced a significant reduction in its crime index, from 94.8 in 2012 to 66 in 2016. The FBI compiles data in eight major categories, from homicide to larceny, to determine a crime index. The lower the score, the better.
Today there are 514 apartments in Avalon Rockville Centre, which have brought just 33 children to local schools — hardly a burden. Many acknowledge that the apartment complex has been a driving force behind the village’s downtown revival, with streets full of pedestrians, not traffic.
Avalon Rockville Centre is beautiful, Rockville Centre Mayor Francis X. Murray said. “It works. There’s no crime . . . Very few people who rent there use our schools,” he said. “The traffic problem is zero . . . It’s been a wonderful addition to the village.”
But should Long Islanders support multifamily housing just because it has proven to do no harm? What’s the positive case for more multifamily developments?
The 2016 Long Island Index estimated that we will gain up to 158,000 new households in the next 15 years. Nearly two-thirds, or 104,000, will prefer multifamily, mixed-use housing in walkable, transit-oriented areas. Right now, only a fraction of such multifamily units are planned. This shortage of quality affordable housing “is keeping young people from striking out on their own and causing many to leave Long Island,” according to the Index.
An earlier report by Community Housing Innovations pointed out that since 2000, some of our most affluent communities saw the number of 25- to 34-year-old residents decline by up to 58 percent. A 2018 Long Island Association study cited the lack of quality affordable housing for young couples as a reason for the declining birth rate and all the economic and social problems that this portends.
With the prices of single-family homes skyrocketing, many seniors looking to downsize have little choice but to move off the Island. Returning veterans are also priced out of the market, with few reasonable choices. Two of the largest generations, millennials looking to start families and retiring baby boomers, are being forced off the Island because of the lack of multifamily housing.
If the need for quality apartments isn’t the problem, what is?
Almost every multifamily project begins with a rezoning application, since less than 1 percent of the land is zoned for multifamily development. The approval process can take years and considerable money. After six years, the original developer of the contaminated Darby Drug site in Rockville Centre gave up on the process and sold to AvalonBay. Three and half years later, the project finally broke ground, 10 years after the first applications were filed.
There are ways to satisfy our critical need for apartments without destroying our treasured Long Island lifestyle. We might streamline local approval processes for projects that are transit-oriented, remediate contaminated sites or revitalize downtowns. We should also take a hard look at Article 78 proceedings, which permit challenges to “ill-advised” approvals of local development projects. These challenges, according to the Long Island Builders Institute, take far longer to resolve here than in the rest of the state, hiking costs and discouraging development.
The positive multifamily track record is there for all to see. The evidence is overwhelming. In virtually every case over the past 15 years, local communities have benefited from apartment development. If we want to ensure the vibrancy of our economy; provide housing options for young people, empty-nesters and returning veterans; and spur downtown revitalization efforts, then the answer lies in the prudent development of well-located, high-quality apartment communities.
Christopher Capece is vice president for development of the Melville-based AvalonBay Communities Inc. He earned degrees from The George Washington University, London Business School and Columbia University.