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Mapping the Future: How Long Island’s Zoning Atlas Could Change Local Housing

Stony Brook REI's Zoning Atlas Meeting

Photo credit: Newsday

Long Island real estate developers and builders intent on expanding local housing stock have a new tool at their disposal, one its creators expect will accelerate vital discussions about how to effectively address the region’s housing shortage.

TRITEC Executive Vice President and Partner Kevin Law joined a panel discussion hosted last week by the Real Estate Institute at Stony Brook University that focused on the Long Island Zoning Atlas, a comprehensive online map that compiles zoning data from Long Island’s 1,200 zoning districts. Completed in December 2023, the Atlas provides a visual and interactive representation of the zoning layers and restrictions that dramatically impact development of housing on Long Island.

Law told the audience of real estate professionals that easy access to the Atlas’s wealth of data will prove to be a benefit to all parties. “Whether you are a developer, a community leader or you work for a municipality, to have all that information at your fingertips is good,” he said. “When you’re going to talk to a town, you need to understand what their zoning is and build support from local political leadership, so having all that information is great.”

While the Atlas will not solve the region’s housing shortage on its own, said Gwen O’Shea, president and CEO of Community Development Corporation of Long Island, it is a valuable tool that standardizes and centralizes data that varies widely from district to district.

“Zoning laws dictate everything that gets built or not built,” O’Shea said. “That has tremendous impact on our economy, environment and society.”

The Atlas is a “conversation starter,” said Steven Romalewski, director of the CUNY Graduate Center Mapping Service and one of the key figures behind the map’s development. Fittingly, Romalewski used the Atlas to build on a statistic that Law cited earlier in his keynote speech. Long Island’s housing stock is 82% single-family homes and 18% multifamily, Law said, while the ratio in the rest of the tristate area is closer to 65–35.

Romalewski followed with an Atlas demo that showed a Long Island map blanketed almost entirely in yellow, representing the 89% of available land currently zoned for single-family residential development. Small, scattered pockets of blue depicted the 3.6% of available land where multifamily development is permitted.

Supporting statistics with a data-rich visual map will spark important conversations in communities that need to find solutions to housing shortages, said Mike Florio, executive director of the Long Island Builders Institute.

“With this tool, you encourage municipalities to sit down and work with their community and say, ‘We all know we have an issue here, and we need to build more. Where do we want to do it?’” Florio said.

In addition to fostering discussion, the Atlas will also help temper often-combative public hearings and help developers, municipalities and community groups find common ground on housing needs. Law said the map can be used to counter scare tactics that mobilize communities against multifamily building.

“We’re talking about diversifying our housing stock,” Law said. “We’re not talking about building apartments in the middle of a residential neighborhood. But that’s what scare tactics are doing. There’s nothing wrong with single-family homes.”

Creating the Atlas was an “epic scavenger hunt” that required a massive amount of legwork, much of it done by college interns, O’Shea said. Now that developers and builders can simply refer to the Atlas rather than spend time and resources on that legwork themselves, the hope is approvals will be expedited with fewer hurdles to clear.

Law said those who contributed to the Atlas should be commended. “Technology is changing our world and the real estate industry as well,” he said. “We should embrace it.”