It’s sitting on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s desk, just waiting to change life on the South Fork for the better.
Legislation approved in June in Albany would create the Community Housing Fund, patterned on the unconditional success of the Community Preservation Fund. The CPF was created 20 years ago to preserve open space and farmland, and to limit the impact of development on the East End — something it has been wildly successful in doing. The goal this time: making this beautiful region a place where more people actually can afford to live — not limited just to those who can afford a second home, but year-round residents who are the lifeblood of a healthy community and economy.
That will mean development — virtually every notion of affordable housing includes new dwellings of some sort. The CHF, if the governor signs the legislation creating it, as he is expected to, unlocks a key resource to solve the problem: money. But it’s not the lone resource — to be successful, an affordable housing program has to have so much more. And if it’s done properly, and creatively, the amount of new construction can be extremely limited.
Obviously, the first step is to have a smart plan for allocating the money. Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle, both of whom helped create the CPF in 1999, did their homework on this front.
A key part of the legislation gives the five East End towns the option of creating a CHF, with a 0.5 percent transfer tax feeding it, and using a portion of the money to assist individuals and families by creating programs designed to make housing more affordable. In each of the towns, that may mean some amount of new construction. But the legislators have set up the framework for a truly innovative way to use existing housing stock: Towns can create programs offering loans for up to 50 percent of the cost of a house, which would only be repaid upon sale of the property. Thus, a $600,000 house is, effectively, $300,000 — and if a family owns it long enough to see it go up in value, they won’t lose that equity. They get the benefits of homeownership without coming up short on the price of entry.
There are many details to work out, and each town might tackle the problem in a slightly different way, which is a strength of the bill. It provides the funds to nourish intelligent plans, allowing them to take root. But that’s the catch: It comes long before any of the individual towns, let alone the East End as a region, has a comprehensive plan for how to address the problem of a lack of affordable housing. Soon, there will be money to spend — so now is the time to do the hard work of setting up a program that works.
It will be tougher than the implementation of the CPF, if only because of a simple statement: Nobody complains when the town buys and preserves open space or farmland next door, but everyone cringes at the thought of “affordable housing” nearby. Getting past that response, or finding a way around it, is part of a much larger puzzle of challenges ahead that will require a great deal of heavy lifting by town and village officials all over the East End.
First, this program cannot be the only solution. In villages especially, septics are restricting any new ideas for new housing options. There is money available on that front as well, and coordinating the efforts is part of the mission ahead. Also, adding more year-round residents will have an impact on infrastructure and schools, and it cannot be ignored — a successful plan will anticipate those issues and address them.
Finally, this new transfer tax is not large, but it is a new tax, and it comes at a time when the region’s real estate market is in a state of jittery uncertainty. Critics will say it’s terrible timing to make East End real estate even 0.5 percent more expensive to buy, especially at the high end. Those are not insignificant concerns, though there is an effective counter-argument: As with the CPF, it’s about keeping the community healthy and viable. The housing crisis is every bit as much an existential threat.
The Community Housing Fund can be a game-changer, in much the same way the CPF was over the last two decades. It also holds a key to solving a problem, the need for affordable housing, without requiring widespread new construction that would undermine the successes of the CPF.
But there is so much heavy lifting to do at the local level. Albany has delivered the engine — it’s time to design the best vehicle around it.