zoning out

Queens Neighborhood Fights for Bigger Single-Family Homes, Bucking U.S. Trend

Single-family homes in Kew Gardens Hills, Aug. 6, 2019.
Single-family homes in Kew Gardens Hills, Aug. 6, 2019. Photo: Savannah Jacobson/THE CITY

Parts of Kew Gardens Hills are doubling down on single-family home zoning and wider, deeper houses — bucking a national trend amid an affordable housing crunch in New York and beyond.

With final approval all but guaranteed on a community-generated rezoning plan, nearly 400 homes in the area could grow. Signs of embracing the national move toward denser housing are nowhere to be found in the verdant central Queens neighborhood filled with garages and manicured lawns.

Local Councilmember Rory Lancman (D-Queens) supports the Kew Gardens Hill plan, which will allow the single-family homes to build out horizontally – even as he penned an op-ed calling for denser housing in the city.

“Our population is bursting at the seams, with more than 8.5 million people currently living here, and they keep coming and coming,” Lancman wrote in the February 2018 Daily News piece. “Where will they live? Where will those born and bred in New York City, like me and my children, live?”

Queens Councilmember Rory Lancman
Queens Councilmember Rory Lancman Photo: Emil Cohen/New York City Council

He’s standing firm in his support of the move in his backyard.

“The Kew Gardens Hills rezoning allows for greater growth and density to accommodate the large families typical of the neighborhood, which will keep people from moving out of New York City,” Lancman told THE CITY.

Rubber Stamp Ready

The plan also has been approved by Community Board 8, which applied for the rezoning, Borough President Melinda Katz and the City Planning Commission.

It just needs the green light from the City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio. The Council traditionally votes with the local member and de Blasio has shown no signs of dissent.

A hearing on the request is set for Sept. 4, with a vote expected two weeks later, according to Lancman’s office.

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz
Queens Borough President Melinda Katz Photo: Christine Chung/THE CITY

About 200 families started the application, according to Community Board 8 District Manager Marie Adam-Ovide. The families wanted to build out their homes so they can stay in the neighborhood as their families grow, she said.

The cost of applying for the rezoning — which would have been around $500,000 in filing fees, according to Jay Goldstein, the lawyer representing the group of families — became too high for the community to shoulder on its own. So the local community board voted in February to take up the application, as first reported by the Queens Chronicle.

Since community boards are arms of the city government, they do not have to pay for the zoning application process.

The area is already zoned for single-family use, but under the old code, the floor area of the house could only total half of the space on the lot it occupied and leave 30 feet of backyard space and 13 feet on the sides.

Typically, if a homeowner wanted to build beyond those limits of what the zoning allowed, they would have to go through the Board of Standards and Appeals to request a variance. Seven variances have been approved in the last five years near the proposed rezoning area.

The new code, called R2X, allows for a significantly higher floor-area ratio, raising it from 0.5 to 0.85, or to 1.02 in homes with an attic. That means under the new rules, houses could have more floor area and expand roughly 10 feet further into their backyards and three feet on the sides.

Against the National Tide

Meanwhile, cities across the country are reckoning with generations of single-family home zoning as a national affordable housing crisis looms, leading Oregon and California to reconsider their urban planning, as The New York Times reported in June. The City Council in Minneapolis already approved a long-term plan that looks to end single-family home zoning by 2040.

“A shortage of new homes and escalating housing costs have prompted several jurisdictions to reconsider exclusive single-family zoning,” said Matt Murphy, executive director of New York University’s Furman Center, which studies housing policy.

“There seems to be a growing recognition that the local housing needs of a city and its neighborhoods are best met through a variety of housing types,” he added.

In Queens, 25% of residential land is zoned for single-family houses, according to The Times, which cited data from Urban Footprint. That percentage is heavily concentrated in Eastern Queens.

That’s only slightly higher than Staten Island, where 22% of residential land is set aside for single-family use. The two boroughs stand in stark contrast to the rest of the city, where that number plummets to 5% in the Bronx, 3% in Brooklyn and 0% in Manhattan, according to the Times/Urban Footprint maps.

Lancman, who sits on the Subcommittee of Zoning and Franchises, has consistently pushed for higher housing density. He’s previously called for lifting density caps as a means to address the city’s urgent need for affordable housing.

Still, he said, the proposed Kew Gardens Hills zoning change is needed to maintain the community’s “social and economic vitality.”

“I’m proud to shepherd this rezoning through the Council, and appreciate our collaboration with the local civic association and Community Board 8,” he added.

Voices Drowned Out

Two board members dissented from the plan. One of them, Edward Chung, spoke out about the need to have the entire community’s full support.

Chung said his mantra is, “strong families, strong civic organizations, strong borough. That keeps us together, even in a large city.”

To meet that goal, he said, “homes should be affordable to families.” In May, his mind was swayed by an elderly woman with a cane, whose voice against the rezoning, he worried, was being ignored.

Edward Chung was one of two of Community Board 8's dissenters on the Kew Gardens Hill’s rezoning plan.
Edward Chung was one of two of Community Board 8’s dissenters on the Kew Gardens Hill’s rezoning plan. Photo: Savannah Jacobson/THE CITY

“Other people who do not want rezoning are left out,” he said.

That woman, Hadassah Waxman, has lived in the neighborhood since 1962 and said “too many funds are being spent to expand these homes instead of repairing and making these homes safer,” according to meeting minutes. She said she feared the character of the neighborhood will change.

Mitch Lisker, a businessman who moved to Kew Gardens Hills in 1987 and bought his house there in 1989, disagrees.

“It’s not to change the structure of the neighborhood, more to change the structure inside,” he told THE CITY. “No one was talking about mansions.”

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