There is probably no subject talked about more on the East End — or one as divisive — as affordable housing.
We all know the familiar refrain: Young people are moving south because they can’t afford to live here; the workforce moves further and further west into Brookhaven and beyond, exacerbating the gridlocked trade parade; our volunteer ambulance and firefighting companies have seen dwindling numbers because potential volunteers are working three jobs to pay the rent; our largest employers struggle to fill their ranks as workers flee to more affordable communities.
Everybody is in favor of making some housing more affordable to some people, but the devil is always in the details: Where do you build it? How much density do you allow? What is affordable? And just who, exactly, is going to live there?
And despite being in resounding agreement that the lack of affordable housing is at a crisis level, when an individual housing project is proposed, the conversation invariably becomes charged, and more often than not, compromise is elusive.
But Friday’s Press Sessions event at Union Cantina — the second conversation hosted by The Express News Group in Southampton — took on a unique, and hopeful, tone. Panelists and audience members all seemed to agree: We’re all in this together, and we have to find some common ground if we’re going to thrive as a community.
So what was different? Perhaps it was the mix of panelists and audience members — representing government, developers, business owners and the general public. Perhaps it was a conversation that was focused on possible solutions and not any single project. Perhaps it was the desperation felt by a community that has slowly come to the realization that it does not have the luxury of NIMBYism any longer — that we have to act fast, or all could be lost.
The panelists, Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman — who has made creating affordable housing one of his primary goals since taking office three years ago; State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. — who has proposed a measure to create a half-percent real estate transfer tax to fund future housing projects; Diana Weir, the town’s director of housing and community development — who offered comprehensive numbers dispelling many of the myths about who applies for town-sponsored housing; ZBA member Michael Daly — who has founded the Yes In My Back Yard movement on the East End; and developer Ralph Fasano — whose non-profit Concern for Independent Living has proposed a 60-unit affordable housing development in Southampton, all came together to offer sobering warnings, but optimistic plans for the future.
The key takeaways from the Press Sessions event were that the community can no longer be mired down by the NIMBY roadblocks and misinformation surrounding the crisis, and that likewise, government can no longer be snail-like when considering projects, afraid of the political backlash from moving forward.
The community must have a collective realization that more housing benefits everyone — including local mom-and-pop businesses that would see upticks in their bottom lines from an increase in residents living near our various main streets.
Strong support for Mr. Thiele’s transfer tax must also be a key to moving forward. An influx of $10 million to $20 million per year to fund projects — including the creation of accessory apartments, as Mr. Schneiderman proposes, could accomplish a lot, if people let it.
The conversation will continue. The next Press Sessions event, “Open Land & Accessory Apartments: Striving to Address Affordable Housing,” will be held on October 24, at noon, at Rowdy Hall in East Hampton. It promises to be another lively discussion — It’s amazing what can be gained when we take the time to just talk to one another.