Chad Hughes


Urban highways cause significant air, water, and soil pollution that disproportionately harm low-income and nonwhite residents. Many urban highways are reaching the end of their useful life and would be extremely expensive to repair or replace. Cities around the world have removed urban highways to improve environmental outcomes and to avoid wasteful spending.

While these teardowns have improved local and regional environmental quality and local traffic congestion, they have also led to increased land values near the retired rights of way. Without anti-displacement efforts, there is a risk that the very people who have been most harmed by urban highways will not be able to afford to remain in their neighborhoods once the highways have been removed. One potential anti-displacement measure would be to build a significant supply of affordable housing on any retired highway right of way. Cities and states already own this land, so local or state policymakers would be able to build more affordable and deeply affordable housing than is typically possible given high land costs in American cities. Removing a portion of a city’s highway system represents a unique opportunity to simultaneously improve environmental outcomes and counter the affordable housing crisis.

This paper reviews the thicket of local, state, and federal laws that would be implicated if New York City and/or New York State undertook a project to replace a highway with affordable housing. City actors would be highly dependent on state and federal approval and would have to navigate the city’s arduous and politically charged land use review process. The governor of New York, however, has remarkable powers over state highways. The governor could unilaterally decommission any state-owned state highway, turn the right of way over to a state development authority, and then redevelop the right of way with affordable housing without going through the city’s land use review process or even adhering to local zoning.