With waiting lists for affordable housing hovering around 6,000 names in East Hampton and Southampton towns together, seven of the South Fork’s most influential policymakers and passionate housing advocates came together on Friday to define and discuss an issue that many agree has reached crisis-level.
The panel dove into big questions surrounding affordable housing for the region’s workforce and senior citizens, from who’s eligible, to what it takes to get these projects off the ground, to why they are needed — and why, more often than not, they face years of delays, lawsuits and other obstacles.
Joining the first of the “Express Sessions,” a series of panel discussions organized by The Sag Harbor Express at the American Hotel, were East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc, Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming, East Hampton Housing Authority executive director Catherine Casey, Sag Harbor Community Housing Trust board member Robert Calvert, real estate agent and Next Gen Housing Collaborative member Michael Daly and Diana Weir, director of Southampton Town’s Office of Housing and Community Development.
“When a workforce can’t live in the community, you lose part of your soul,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “We may have preserved our land, but we haven’t preserved our community.”
Mr. Van Scoyoc was among those who called the scarcity of affordable housing on the South Fork a “crisis situation.” “We look around and see how the cost of housing is tearing away at the fabric of our community,” he said.
Defining “Affordable” Housing
Town-specific programs vary in their eligibility requirements based on how they are funded, but housing programs are usually defined as “affordable” based upon the income of the potential occupants. Rent and sale prices, for those units that are put on the market, are capped based on family income.
Specific income definitions are set by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). For Nassau and Suffolk counties, the current income limit is $110,800 for a family of four, taking into account the already-high cost of living in these areas. A household earning up to 80 percent of that amount is considered by HUD to be “low to moderate income;” those earning up to 50 percent of that figure are considered “low income” and those who earn up to 30 percent of that figure are considered “very low income.”
Experts say people should spend no more than 25 percent of their incomes on housing. Yet according to 2016 figures provided by the East Hampton Town Community Housing Opportunity Fund, 30 percent of residents who rent in East Hampton and 23 percent of residents who own property there are spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing costs.
All the panelists agreed that solving the affordable housing issue has to be a multifaceted approach in which municipalities work together and the public, private and nonprofit sectors work together as well.
“The municipalities cannot do it alone,” Ms. Casey said. “There is not enough tax revenue to build these projects. … In a sense, we have to sell it locally. It is our responsibility to educate the community on the overall community benefits.”
Ms. Fleming, who was a Southampton Town councilwoman before she was elected to the county legislature, said the different levels of support stack up to yield greater results when local projects are in the running for competitive state grants.
“The folks in the state want to get the most bang for their buck,” she said. “We need to convince them it makes sense through local support. Not only is it important who you elect because you have to be able to withstand resistance … you also need local investment — real, hard dollars.”
Doing the Difficult Work
Mr. Schneiderman and Ms. Fleming touted the success of two affordable housing projects in Southampton Town, Sandy Hollow Cove and Speonk Commons, which enjoyed $2.15 million in funding from the county along with state tax credits and private development funding. It’s “a numbers game” that relies on increased housing density, Mr. Schneiderman said. “If you don’t have the density, it can’t be done,” he said.
But it was a hard-fought win, particularly in Speonk.
“It was a blighted site with boarded-up buildings,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “It seemed perfect. They wanted to chase us away. They felt like we were dumping on their community. The density was just too much.”
That’s where the NIMBYs and the YIMBYs come in.
In addition to working in real estate and promoting the Progressive East End Reformers’ Next Gen Housing Collaborative, Mr. Daly runs a Facebook group called “East End YIMBY.” It stands for yes-in-my-backyard and is meant to counter the not-in-my-backyard mindset, and it’s a tough task to turn the tide. Mr. Daly said supporters need to come out and speak up, because all too often it’s the opposition that wins out.
“Sometimes a YIMBY has to shame a NIMBY just like a NIMBY is shaming a public official,” he said. “Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire.”
Mr. Van Scoyoc also said “the loudest voices get heard.”
He also said, in response to a guest’s comment that affordable housing has tended to “pit one hamlet or school district against another,” that “the key word is balance.”
“I think every hamlet and district has a responsibility to accept affordable housing,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “…I think everyone within the town has an equal responsibility to educate the children who belong to all of us collectively. Our future depends upon it.”
Panelists also said it may take some hard work by the municipalities themselves to allow for greater zoning flexibility for affordable housing — and to find the support among constituents for such changes.
“If we are to meet that challenge, we can expect increased densities of people and possibly different land uses,” Mr. Calvert said. “… The question is can we do that in a way that is not impactful or has very little impact.”
Ms. Casey called zoning and density “a bit of a tug-of-war.”
“We don’t want to overdevelop a site, but we want to exercise all of our development rights,” she said.
Solutions Are Debated
Panelists and guests debated several solutions to the problem. Notable among them was the concept of accessory apartments, which are usually built as an attachment to or a section within existing houses. According to Ms. Weir, the idea is gaining steam.
“People are becoming more and more accepting of accessory apartments. It can help pay their own mortgage, which makes it good for the homeowner … and the tenant has an affordable, decent place to stay,” Ms. Weir said. “Owner occupied accessory apartments or rentals are really the best way to have rentals within a community, because the homeowner has a vested interest in who that renter is, how he maintains that apartment and how the homeowner maintains the property.”
Ms. Weir said she is working with local banks to encourage them to comply with the Community Reinvestment Act by providing low-interest financing for homeowners who want to build an accessory apartment to put into Southampton Town’s program.
Mr. Daly suggested using a percentage of the Community Preservation Fund for the creation of affordable housing — an idea that drew applause from the audience, but mixed reactions from other panelists.
“I think there’s been resistance to make changes to the CPF, but I think that’s a worthy pursuit of CPF monies,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “When you look long term at how much land is there left to preserve … I think it’s a valid use of those funds going forth.”
Mr. Schneiderman disagreed, however, saying that it’s not a realistic idea.
“It’s generated over $1 billion for land preservation and has protected our environment and who we are in many ways, but it has driven the price of the remaining land up,” he said. “It’s that supply and demand equation and has made affordability even harder. I don’t know that it’s just funding that is the issue here. I think we have to be willing to recognize that some of our zoning needs to allow the free market to create affordable housing.”
Another idea brought up was the idea of tiny homes, particularly those with their own, isolated septic systems that are periodically emptied out.
“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t entertain, on lots of a particular size, a micro house of a certain size in the back yard,” Mr. Calvert said.
Ms. Weir agreed and said these are under consideration in Southampton Town.
Steve D’Angelo, a guest, suggested the town, county or other level of government find a way to provide “an incentive” to inspire a property owner to rent a house or apartment year-round to a local resident at an affordable rate, rather than put it up on Airbnb or just rent it at summer-only market rates.
“Letting the private sector do its own thing is where the truth lies,” Mr. D’Angelo said. “I think that that’s going to help our rural character than doing these big affordable housing units. They have their place, I’m not against that, but I’d rather see the typical neighborhoods stay the way they are.”
Myron Holtz, another guest, proposed building units of housing over the parking lot behind Main Street in Sag Harbor, suggesting there are “no homeowners who will object.”
“I think the difficulty is in trying to quantify what are the consequences of not having workforce or next generation housing,” he said. “If you can quantify that by saying, ‘The hospital can’t attract the best residents and interns, and the schools cannot attract the best teachers because they can’t afford to live here and don’t want to commute for an hour.’ … The biggest employers have to step up and the silent majority has to overcome the vocal minority and explain to them that this is for the good of our community.”
Reflections on the Conversation
Reflecting on the panel discussion, Mr. Schneiderman said Tuesday that conversations like these are “part of changing the paradigm.”
“What I liked about it is it brought a lot of people together to talk about a critical issue, one that doesn’t get enough attention,” he said. “As we preserve the landscape, we’re preserving a part of the community character, but we’re losing the characters, the people. To me, to have a whole room full of people talking about issues like workforce housing is refreshing.”
Mr. Daly said he was encouraged by the attendance and enthusiasm at Friday’s event.
“I believe we ‘tightened the circle’ and are mostly on the same path to create more affordable, workforce and senior housing,” he said. “It let people know that affordable housing is on the minds of elected officials as well as advocates and that things are happening to that end — however, public support is the most important missing ingredient.”
Mr. Van Scoyoc said what was clear from the forum is that public support is crucial.
“I think the Express is doing a great thing by bringing these types of issues in a panel discussion forum and I applaud that effort,” he said. “It’s part of what’s necessary to get things done and draw support. I think the one thing that was emphasized, which was encouraging, is that the community come out and support these types of projects when they’re proposed.”