Ben Lockwood speaks with on effect of Micron, Gov. Hochul’s plan on affordable housing in CNY

Ben Lockwood speaks with on effect of Micron, Gov. Hochul’s plan on affordable housing in CNY
This article was written and published by, March 8, 2023. View the original piece here.

Gov. Kathy Hochul has made addressing New York’s affordable housing crisis a cornerstone of her agenda. Her New York Housing Compact would encourage construction of 800,000 new homes over the next decade through a combination of state incentives, relaxed zoning codes and growth targets for every community.

It’s a controversial plan. To examine its implications and stimulate community discussion, today we launch a series of conversations with stakeholders in the affordable housing arena, beginning with Ben Lockwood.

Lockwood is president and CEO of Housing Visions, a not-for-profit developer based in Syracuse. Over the past 30 years, the agency has developed a $466 million portfolio of 409 buildings with 1,820 units across Upstate New York and Pennsylvania. Its projects include VanKeuren Square on East Genesee Street, the Penfield Manufacturing building near Washington Square, and Harbor View Square in Oswego.

Lockwood was appointed CEO of Housing Visions in March 2019. He holds a degree in urban and regional studies from Cornell University. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: You’re not sold on the governor’s “stick” approach to building more housing — the threat that the state would override local zoning law if a community fails to meet a growth target of 1% every three years. What would be a better approach?

A: I do think the policy is well-intentioned. Maybe it’s a step ahead of where some of the local communities are … [they] recognize the need that’s out there. I typically [believe] the carrot is better than the stick. From a policy perspective, do I know exactly what the carrot should be? No. But I think just being factual in towns and suburbs is important. In Onondaga County and across Upstate New York, we have a rapidly aging populace. We have a lot of people that are “over-housed” — boomers who don’t have children at home, and yet they still have that three- or four-bedroom houses that they raised their family in. What are their options if they want to remain in some of these great places we have in Central New York? … We need options for people to remain in communities that they’ve grown and loved, where they’ve lived and aged, and want to be able to stay there.

And then Micron is coming in. We need these houses for presumably the younger folks that are going to be coming in and need to raise their families and have good, quality housing.
… How can we build some more density in our towns and villages? The “town center” concept that the county executive has out there is very good. It provides new avenues.

Things are about to take off in Central New York, and that’s both exciting and scary.

Q: It’s tremendously expensive to build affordable housing — upward of $300,000 a unit. Why does it cost so much?

A: On the multifamily and the affordable side, there’s a lot of regulation attached to that. And the quality is superb. Those are the things that drive [costs]. And then the transaction costs are high, as a result of the public-private partnership. … There’s a lot of eyes and regulation and market studies and environmental reporting and legal fees and title fees. There are five, six, seven, eight streams of funding that come in that all have their own rules and regulations. It takes a lot of ingredients to bake the cake.

Q: Can it be done more cheaply?

A: it depends on what we want with our affordable housing. Do we just want units? So we don’t have any special populations, we don’t have any wraparound services — if we just want that, that can be accomplished more cheaply than the more intensive housing. The counterpoint would be that on the intensive housing, we are reducing pressure on other parts of our general societal system by getting people in good-quality housing where we’re reducing hospital visits, where we’re improving all those social determinants of health that come into play. It’s just a numbers game. It can be done. It’s never going to be done as cheaply as the market rate.


Q: Is the problem with housing in Syracuse quantity, quality or both?

A: Here, it’s not necessarily the quantity of the housing right now. It’s the quality of housing. There are a lot of housing units in Syracuse that are just atrocious, that are not healthy, not safe, not good places to live or to raise a family. And so how do we change that?

Looking at Micron, gosh, is it going to be both quantity and quality now?

Q: What could government do right now to encourage more affordable housing?

A: We use a program called the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. In any given year, it is oversubscribed in New York state by 6-1 or 7-1. So an expansion of the credit would be good.

Talking about single-family homeownership, where the cost [of renovating] is higher than what you can realistically sell to a homeowner, there are some great proposals out there for an additional credit that would close that gap for developers. There are some very technical changes, as well, for tax-exempt bonds [that] would get more deals through the queue every year.

… [If there was one thing I’d ask for,] it’s an expansion of the resources from the federal government. I do believe that New York state is doing a lot. Onondaga County, with the new funds that the county exec announced, I think that’s good. In my perfect world, I would want a dedicated funding source on an annual basis, because our housing problems are only going to be exacerbated here in the coming years.

Q: CNY Fair Housing just released a study showing that 74% of Onondaga County’s residential land is zoned strictly for single-family homes on large lots. Is zoning the thing holding us back?

A: Any place that has exclusively single-family zoning, or no zoning where you could actually add multifamily housing, that’s absolutely a problem. I don’t think that’s a controversial statement. Say if your community only allows single-family housing on 1-acre plots, you’re going to get single family housing on 1-acre plots, and you’re not going to get kind of the missing middle or any range other than what’s been there.

… To go back to some of these town center models: That’s really an opportunity to blend in, in a way that that can be so beneficial for the community. Market rate, retail, commercial and affordable live together. And that’s important.

Q: Half of Onondaga County renters are considered “rent-burdened” — that is, they spend 30% of their income on housing. Are rents too high or are wages too low?

A: Look at our incredibly high poverty numbers. If you’re making $20,000 a year, you really cannot afford anything.
… Is it cheaper to provide a rental subsidy of $500 or $600 a month than building a $300,000 unit? If you were a landlord with a duplex and, say, with an additional subsidy you can take your income from $1,000 a month to $2,000 a month, would that entice you to invest more to improve the property? I think so. … That could be a way to get more people into private housing. The vast majority of rentals are small, small landlords. Maybe you could give extra money in exchange for improvements. That might help.

Q: What’s your biggest project to date?

A: The biggest one we’re doing right now is our partnership with Ryan Benz and Steve Case, the Penfield building, which is 128 units in the Washington Square neighborhood. It’s a brownfield. Its physical condition was terrible. It’s historic. But it’s also an iconic building and complex. … That building is not in Phoenix, Arizona, or Orlando, Florida. It’s part of the cool fabric of Upstate New York.

And then we look across the street, where somebody has purchased two more buildings that were part of that complex. And some for-profit developers who have purchased across the street plan to do 40 or 50 units of market- or near-market-rate housing. That is a good testament to the work that we’re doing there — in other people seeing, OK, I’ll throw my money in. That’s where affordable housing can be a force for good. We’re “first money in,” stabilizing things or showing people that this is worthwhile to invest in. I think that’s an exciting thing.

Q: Looking ahead, what do you see?

A: I’m excited for Central New York and Syracuse. What’s about to happen here is just a new era of growth and things that we have not experienced, really, ever. We have either been decline or stagnation or teeny bit of growth. What happens when Micron breaks ground and shows up and starts producing chips? That’s an exciting prospect.