‘Express Sessions’ Revisits Affordable Housing, Finds Progress Has Been Made

The panel during the Express Sessions: Affordable Housing event that took place at the American Hotel on Friday, 2/22/19. Michael Heller photo

South Fork government officials and housing activists last year identified a massive problem in the region at The Sag Harbor Express’s first “Express Session” on the topic: a lack of affordable housing for low- and middle-income workers, senior citizens and other vulnerable populations.

Now, they say, momentum is gaining toward change for the better.

That was one of the takeaways on Friday at the American Hotel, when The Express sponsored a second “Express Sessions” panel discussion on the topic of affordable housing, during which seven community leaders explored how much progress has been made since last year’s conversation.

Hundreds and hundreds of people still wait their turns in local affordable housing lotteries, but “the momentum is our best ally in getting these things done,” said Catherine Casey, the executive director of the East Hampton Housing Authority. “There isn’t a silver bullet. There isn’t one giant pot of money or one piece of legislation. The most important thing is we do have the political will at the moment on the municipal, county and state level. We have to seize the day. We have momentum.”

Panelist Catherine Casey responds to a question during the Express Sessions: Affordable Housing, One Year Later. Michael Heller photo

One Year Later

As it turns out, a lot has been accomplished in a year.

East Hampton Town in January agreed to purchase about four acres on Route 114 from Triune Baptist Church for $900,000. A property once slated for a worship center will be transformed into an affordable housing community.

The East Hampton Housing Authority last May received $7 million more from New York State, the remaining funding needed to develop a 37-unit project on Montauk Highway in Amagansett. The overall price tag of the project is about $19 million. Dubbed “531 AMG,” it’s well into the planning phase.

Southampton Town passed new legislation to allow more homeowners to build accessory apartments on their properties by reducing the minimum lot size required. The town also set a new requirement that, beginning this year, all new accessory apartments in private houses have to be rented to people with limited incomes at affordable rates.

A housing lottery is imminent for the condominiums at Southampton Pointe in Southampton; there’s a list of 280 people who want one of its 15 units. The town is building affordable apartment communities at Sandy Hollow in Tuckahoe and Speonk Commons that will total 66 units. Another site, Tuckahoe Woods, has been identified by Southampton Town as a viable location for a couple more units. In Hampton Bays, development of a new 50-unit senior citizen community is under way.

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And New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. has proposed raising funds for affordable housing with a .5-percent tax East End towns would impose on house sales of $400,000 and above, similar to how the Community Preservation Fund works. While the proposed tax still has to be approved by New York State and then ratified by the voters in each town, such a fund could be used in a variety of ways to help people obtain reasonably priced places to live through subsidies and more housing projects.

Panelist Michael Daly responds to a question during the Express Sessions: Affordable Housing event that took place at the American Hotel on Friday, 2/22/19. Michael Heller photo

“Everyone deserves a place to live that they can afford to live in, but affordable housing in and of itself is really a moral problem as well as a marketing problem,” said Michael Daly, a real estate broker with Douglas Elliman who runs a group called the NextGen Housing Collaborative.

Elected Officials Buoy Housing Efforts

Mr. Daly called for the community to rally around elected officials who support affordable housing initiatives.

“We can’t elect these fine people and let them hang out to dry,” he said. “We have to go and support them at these meetings. Workforce housing, senior housing. If it’s to be, it’s up to we. Things only happen when the people get behind them.”

Among the elected officials who support such projects is East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc, who said the town “is constantly looking” at ways to grab, build and keep more affordable units. In addition, he said, “Any future development of affordable housing in East Hampton will meet the standards for renewable energy as well as septic systems. That’s part of what we’ll do going forward because it’s critical.”

Mr. Thiele, the sponsor of the new housing tax, said it might be “the best bad idea we have.”

“Nobody likes increases in taxes,” he said, but added, “There is broad-based support for this. It seems popular regardless of political stripe. There is some resistance from the building industry and real estate industry.”

New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele responds to a question during the Express Sessions: Affordable Housing event that took place at the American Hotel on Friday, 2/22/19. Michael Heller photo

Where Does Sag Harbor Fit In?

According to Rob Calvert, a director of the Sag Harbor Community Housing Trust, land acquisition and financing are roadblocks the Trust has faced. So far, it has successfully preserved eight workforce units at The Cottages. But it competes against municipalities including East Hampton for state grant money — and has lost out three times.

“The challenge we had was to create an organization from scratch that had the capacity to build that which you describe,” Mr. Calvert said. “We were able to come up with a model that we thought could be replicated. What we could not solve … is a very competitive situation where we could not compete at the scale for the project we were working on. It was that realization that as a small organization that is volunteer-based, however dedicated we are to affordable housing, there is a limit to what we can accomplish.”

Susan Mead, the treasurer of the Sag Harbor Partnership and an attorney who also sits on the Sag Harbor Zoning Board of Appeals, said it’s going to take “a menu” of “20 or 30 incentives” for developers and homeowners in Sag Harbor to want to add accessory apartments or build affordable units in the village. While support for affordable housing is in the Sag Harbor Partnership’s mission statement, “That’s about the extent of our involvement,” she said.

Panelist Susan Mead responds to a question during the Express Sessions: Affordable Housing event that took place at the American Hotel on Friday, 2/22/19. Michael Heller photo

“It’s a long-term situation and it takes tremendous patience to be able to go to a town or village and put in an affordable apartment,” Ms. Mead said. She called for incentives such as waiving building department fees and streamlining the regulatory process. “We have an affordable housing code that is little-used in Sag Harbor. It’s time to revisit it and make it work because it’s not producing any affordable units.”

Later in the session, Anthony Vermandois, a local architect who frequently deals with land use and zoning issues, spoke of how difficult it is for a property owner to build a detached apartment.

“You probably won’t be able to do it because of the zoning. The setbacks, the lot coverage, the pyramid law,” Mr. Vermandois said. “Just a couple of years ago, Sag Harbor Village changed its laws so that you’re not allowed to have plumbing [in an accessory structure] unless it’s in a pool house, so you have to have a pool. The village is almost shooting itself in the foot with the rules and regulations.”

Mr. Calvert concurred, saying there have been just two legal conversions of illegal apartments since Sag Harbor’s code was changed. He suggested there be further zoning changes in residential districts that would allow for greater density when affordable housing is the goal. He also said the housing trust is “looking at the possibility of making a pretty significant contribution to the creation of an affordable unit.”

Win Some, Lose More

Some members of the panel pointed out the fight to keep housing affordable isn’t just about building new stock – it’s about retaining options that already exist.

Mr. Calvert said “we’re going to lose a ton and gain a few modestly” in Sag Harbor at the current rate of development. “It’s going to take an intervention,” he said. “It’s not an incremental approach.”

Panelist Rob Calvert responds to a question during the Express Sessions: Affordable Housing event that took place at the American Hotel on Friday, 2/22/19. Michael Heller photo

Mr. Van Scoyoc said this particular aspect of the problem keeps him awake at night.

“We do have to succeed in an approach that is very broad. We need to keep putting projects out there and getting them built,” he said. “As we are pushing forward with more units coming online, we are losing affordable properties at an alarming rate. Streets that had very modest homes that people could afford, now they are multi-million-dollar homes. We’re losing units faster than we could possibly build them.”

Another Potential Housing Site

Mr. Calvert called upon Mr. Van Scoyoc to explore affordable housing as a consideration amid what is already a controversial debate in East Hampton: the potential closure of the East Hampton Town Airport, which would leave about 600 acres of already-cleared land ripe for some sort of project to benefit the community.

“You could build a very intentional community there that is forever affordable, forever tailored to the workforce, that produces its own energy — basically the model for how we have to live in a sensitive area in an affordable way,” Mr. Calvert said.

The audience burst into applause.

Mr. Van Scoyoc replied that “we are looking all over town for opportunities” and that it may be an option the town weighs at some point.

East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc responds to a question during the Express Sessions: Affordable Housing event that took place at the American Hotel on Friday, 2/22/19. Michael Heller photo

“We’ve struggled to control and dial back airport noise for decades, and we’ve seen huge impacts from that,” the supervisor said. “Really it comes down to values that our community has and where you want to be going forward in the future, and we can remold our East End to whatever vision we see.”

Community Perspectives

Eva Growney, a local architect, suggested there be some sort of regulation of Airbnb rentals, which have encouraged landlords to favor short-term rentals for non-residents. She cautioned “that’s a very slippery slope,” but called for officials to “take a hard look at that in a way that’s workable for this community. It’s a humane issue here. People cannot afford to live where they’re living.”

John Barton, a lifelong Sag Harbor resident, called for local officials to take “a more spread-out approach” in which they put motivation “in each existing homeowner’s pocket so you motivate them to create more affordable housing.”

“That comes in the form of the most understandable language, which is money,” Mr. Barton said. “Give tax incentives for affordable housing, or fund it by the CPF or something. As soon as you identify targets in the community” for large affordable housing projects, “they’re going to be attacked.”

Eric Cohen, another longtime resident, said the private sector should be encouraged to get more involved.

“I have one idea: expand the zoning where multi-use development is allowed,” he said. “If we can do that, we would also create vibrant neighborhoods for senior citizens and others, and make it viable for developers to build where they could make a good return.”

Working Toward Solutions

Diana Weir, Southampton Town’s director of housing and community development, said the town “is very excited” over the projects it has in the pipeline.

Panelist Diana Weir responds to a question during the Express Sessions: Affordable Housing event that took place at the American Hotel on Friday, 2/22/19. Michael Heller photo

“At least we’re providing more than we have in the past,” she said. “We’re getting five units here, three units there, and every unit is gold.”

She said the town is also looking at “every store in town that has a second floor that’s just for show” to see if they can be converted to affordable apartments. “We’re trying everything,” she said.

The issue is even catching fire in Southampton Village. Trustee Kimberly Allan attended Friday’s session to glean some ideas for her village. “We really want to do something quickly,” she said.

Mr. Thiele suggested that Southampton Village pursue a sewer district, which has helped Sag Harbor retain a vibrant downtown, as a step toward increasing the density that affordable housing developments often require.

“Put as many tools in the toolbox as you can,” he told Ms. Allan.

Mr. Daly called for zoning code revisions and reiterated the need to support elected officials who prioritize affordable housing.

“Generations of our forefathers have created these codes that don’t allow it,” he said. “It’s a wild, crazy, convoluted series of challenges that we face, but it’s only going to be faced if we have the will to face it and support the people who can change the codes.”