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Multifamily housing caught in its own ‘Groundhog Day’


Remember Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day”? He played a TV reporter caught in a time vortex, repeating Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pa., again and again. I often feel the same when I look back at my 20 years of public meetings and debates about multifamily housing’s effects on Long Island schools. People make the same arguments, as if Long Island were stuck in its own Groundhog Day.

The not-in-my-backyard crowd predicts dire consequences for schools if multifamily development is allowed. Yet developers cite years of research proving that high-end apartment projects actually positively affect school districts.

On June 30, I will end my AvalonBay career on Long Island, where I have worked in multifamily development for more than two decades. In that time I have overseen the construction of numerous projects with thousands of units for AvalonBay Communities. All of these developments have improved surrounding neighborhoods while providing much-needed, high-quality apartments for young professionals and empty-nesters. Now I want to draw attention to the strange and difficult reality in which Long Island multifamily development exists.

On May 5, SUNY Stony Brook’s Real Estate Institute unveiled a highly anticipated white paper on the effect of new apartments on school enrollment. It examined 14 multifamily communities (including four built by AvalonBay) on districts’ populations over 15 years. The study reaffirmed that upscale multifamily construction has no appreciable impact on school enrollment. The study found that multifamily developments housed an average of 0.09 students per apartment unit — almost negligible.

Dr. Pearl Kamer, formerly the Long Island Association’s chief economist who retired in 2013, thoroughly studied the issue in 2010, reviewing data for 326 multifamily communities with over 35,000 housing units on Long Island, and concluded that multifamily housing generates far fewer children per unit than single-family homes. Eighty-five percent of new multifamily developments were either tax-positive or tax-neutral for school districts.

In 2017, the Village of Patchogue commissioned a study on the economic impact of multifamily housing on its economy. Seven multifamily communities had just 40 students enrolled in the Patchogue-Medford School District over 10 years, at a cost that was one-sixth of the average per-student cost. During that same period, the school district collected a net surplus — taxes raised less the cost of educating students — from these multifamily communities of $5.4 million.

This information isn’t new, but it is consistent and quantitatively verifiable. Time and again, the findings have been replicated in research reports. Yet time and again, the NIMBYists have made nonsensical predictions based on alternative facts. They warn of classroom overcrowding and the financial burdens that come with more teachers and expanded facilities. Most distressing is seeing elected officials ignoring independent data and using those alternative facts to pander to the vocal minority.

Despite easily accessible, accurate data, I actually heard one school superintendent, speaking with an air of authority, opine in a public meeting that multifamily developments yield one child for every bedroom on the property. Such an irresponsible allegation flies in the face of all research.

Why is there still such vociferous opposition to multifamily housing on Long Island, even after a 20-year record of success? Why is government making it harder to develop apartment communities, despite the studies? Perhaps it’s ignorance of the data showing the beneficial financial and social effects of such housing on communities. Perhaps the NIMBYists are unaware of that data. Perhaps they don’t realize that Long Island faces a housing shortage that is driving young professionals away and hurting the economy.

Or perhaps people fear what the NIMBYists call “Queensification,” often code for a desire to keep diversity at bay. If this is indeed the case, then, sadly, that would explain why no data — no matter how conclusive — would change their minds.

This ignorance of such a key issue is even more egregious when school superintendents and their districts are empowered by villages and towns to dictate land-use policy. The role of school districts should be the subject of serious study by municipalities. Rather than give undue weight to districts — whose positions are often driven by NIMBYists with children in the schools — villages and towns should adopt a range of impact criteria into their planning and zoning codes.

I may be unable to convince the NIMBYists that their fears are unfounded. But, just maybe, one more well-constructed research study done by REI at SUNY Stony Brook will hammer one more nail in the NIMBYist coffin. Maybe one more irrefutable set of research findings will finally set the record straight. After 20 years, I haven’t given up hope. Maybe Long Island’s multifamily industry will finally be set free from its own long-running Groundhog Day.

Matthew Whalen is senior vice president for development overseeing multifamily development for AvalonBay Communities Inc. in Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties.