New York State Redistricting: Why It Matters for Housing

In mid-March, the state Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo passed a new redistricting plan for the state Senate and Assembly into law. Despite written pledges from Cuomo and nearly all the legislators to end gerrymandering and create an independent panel to draw district lines for the next decade, the plan they approved is hyper-partisan. It continues the New York tradition of allowing the Assembly Democrats to shape Assembly districts to their advantage and the Senate Republicans to do the same. 

Gerrymandering is thus essential to maintaining the corrupt and ineffective “three men in a room” status quo of Albany. Many crucial aspects of housing policy, such as rent regulation and subsidies like the 421a and J-51 programs, are decided by the state government in Albany rather than by City Hall. The Republican domination of the state Senate has for decades been perhaps the biggest obstacle to achieving stronger rent regulation and other pro-tenant policies. That control would likely be impossible without the once-a-decade gerrymandering process. 

In order to maintain control in a state where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by more than 2 to 1, Senate Republicans use every trick in the gerrymandering book. Federal law allows the population of state legislative districts to be up to 5 percent smaller or larger than the ideal strictly equal size, about 315,000 people based on the 2010 Census. In the plan passed by Albany, this is manipulated to create a new upstate Senate district, the 63rd, that really belongs in New York City. 

In fact, all the upstate Senate districts in the plan are underpopulated by nearly 5 percent, while the New York City districts are overpopulated by nearly as much. The average New York City Senate District has nearly 25,000 more residents than the average upstate district. That gives the average upstate resident about 8 percent more voting power in the state Senate than the average New York City resident has. 

The districts in New York City are drawn in gnarled puzzle pieces in order to maximize the chances of electing Republicans in Brooklyn and Queens. Marty Golden’s Senate District 22, for example, winds and twists its way across South Brooklyn to include only the most conservative areas. The adjacent 23rd District connects Sunset Park and Coney Island by a thread of waterfront land. 

Upstate, cities like Rochester are carved into three districts that then extend far into the countryside, to ensure that urban voters are outnumbered by more conservative rural and suburban voters. The liberal-leaning counties of Ulster and Tompkins (home to Ithaca) are sliced into three and four pieces respectively. And on Long Island, areas with large and growing minority populations, such as Islip in Suffolk County and the Hempstead-Freeport area in Nassau, are also carefully chopped into multiple districts to protect Republican incumbents.  All of these areas are home to higher populations of renters and lower-income residents who would benefit from strong affordable-housing policies. 

To be fair, the Assembly Democrats also engage in this kind of partisan gerrymandering in order to pad their advantage and get as close to a supermajority as possible. But overall it is not as egregious as the Senate Republicans’ gerrymandering—probably only because they don’t need it to reach a majority. 

While legislative leaders were busy wrangling for months behind closed doors to produce some of the most egregiously gerrymandered state Senate and Assembly districts New York has ever seen, the process for the state’s Congressional districts has been very different.  When the Democrats and Republicans in Albany could not reach an agreement on which incumbents to favor or disfavor, the federal court for the Eastern District of New York had to step in to draw new Congressional lines. In stark contrast to the Senate and Assembly districts produced by the Legislature, New York’s new Congressional districts are the fairest the state has seen in decades. 

Since December 2011, Common Cause New York has made publicly available a set of redistricting plans based on traditional nonpartisan criteria, including communities of interest, compactness, contiguity, and respect for county, city, town, village, and school district lines wherever possible. The Common Cause “Reform Maps” deliberately excluded consideration of political data, such as where incumbents live. The federal court’s Congressional plan, guided by the same criteria, closely follows the structure of the Reform Map in most areas of the state. 

Civil-rights organizations and good-government groups like Common Cause now hope that the courts will step in to redraw the state legislative lines. It is quite possible that the courts may find the addition of the 63rd Senate district unconstitutional. It is also possible that the federal Department of Justice will find that some aspects of the Senate’s gerrymandering violate the Voting Rights Act. 

Brian Paul is research and policy coordinator at Common Cause/NY. You can explore the new districts, the Common Cause Reform Maps, and the progress of the litigation at Common Cause NY’s redistricting website, www.citizenredistrictny.org.