ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York Gov. Kathy Hochul stressed her commitment to public safety in her annual address to state lawmakers Tuesday, pledging to expand the number of available beds in psychiatric treatment facilities and to again tackle the politically sensitive issue of bail reform.
The Democrat outlined the plans during her annual State of the State speech, her first since New York Republicans gained electoral ground in November after casting their opponents as soft on crime.
Hochul also unveiled a plan to create more affordable housing, partly by pressuring municipalities to get rid of bureaucratic red tape and ease land-use rules that have made it tough to build multifamily housing, particularly in New York City’s suburbs.
She said the proposals, if adopted by lawmakers, could spur the creation of 800,000 new homes over the next decade.
“We will make New York safer. We will make New York more affordable. We will create more jobs and opportunities for the New Yorkers of today and tomorrow,” Hochul told lawmakers and dignitaries jammed into the state Assembly chamber.
Hochul, who was elected in November to her first full term, enters the new legislative session trying to strike a balance between the demands of the liberal wing of her party, which has enjoyed more influence in Albany in recent years, and centrists who are worried that incremental movements to the left have sent some voters back to the Republicans, who had been nearly bereft of power in state politics.
In an effort to tackle untreated mental illness, particularly among homeless people, Hochul announced plans to add 1,000 beds for inpatient psychiatric treatment and create 3,500 housing units to address gaps in the state’s mental health care system.
The more than $1 billion, multiyear plan also would increase insurance coverage for mental health services, expand outpatient services and create greater accountability in hospital admissions and discharges.
“We have underinvested in mental health care for so long and allowed the situation to become so dire, that it also has become a public safety crisis, as well,” Hochul said to enthusiastic applause. “New Yorkers are anxious on the subways and in our streets when they see individuals who need help.”
The plan would direct state-licensed hospitals to reopen 850 inpatient psychiatric beds that went offline during the pandemic, and would lead to 150 new adult beds in state-operated psychiatric hospitals, including 100 in New York City.
Hochul said the state would provide capital investments and operating funds for 3,500 new residential units. That includes 1,500 supportive housing units serving people with serious mental illness and 900 transitional step-down units.
Hochul also expressed interest in revisiting bail policy with state lawmakers.
A sweeping bail law approved in 2019 did away with pretrial incarceration for people accused of most nonviolent offenses. Supported by progressives, the law has been tweaked since then amid criticism from Republicans and some moderate Democrats that it has deprived judges of a tool they could use to hold people likely to commit new crimes.
Hochul stood by the goal of bail reform, but said lawmakers could not ignore New York residents who say crime is their top concern. The issue is widely believed to have cost Hochul and her fellow Democrats votes in the last election.
She called for a “thoughtful conversation” during the budget process to make improvements to the law.
For instance, judges are now required to choose the “least restrictive” means to ensure a defendant returns to court, as opposed to considering how dangerous they appear. Hochul favors eliminating that “least restrictive” standard for serious crimes, according to the governor’s plan.
State Sen. James Skoufis, a Democrat who long advocated for change in the bail reform law to give judges more discretion, said he was “heartened” to hear of the proposal.
But it was unclear how enthusiastic Democrats in control of the Legislature would be to reopen the bail debate.
On housing, the Hochul administration said the failure to build enough homes has resulted in high rents, out-of-reach home prices and workers leaving for more affordable states. While the state added 1.2 million jobs in the last decade, only 400,000 homes were built. The goal for the next decade will be to double that, she said.
Under the plan, localities will have a target for building new homes. Targets for upstate municipalities would be for the housing stock to grow by 1% every three years, and 3% every three years for downstate areas.
“Local governments can meet these targets any way they want. They can shape building capacity, they can redevelop old malls, old buildings, office parks, incentivize new housing production or just update the zoning rules to reduce barriers,” Hochul said.
Localities with downstate commuter rail stations would rezone to allow higher density multifamily development within half a mile of the station unless they already meet the density level.