The second “Press Sessions” event in Southampton Village hosted by The Express News Group took place on Friday at Union Cantina, where a panel consisting of local lawmakers, real estate agents and developers discussed affordable housing.
Many people acknowledge the need for more affordable housing on the East End, particularly in the Town of Southampton, but once a project is proposed, people come out of the woodwork to oppose it because they say the development would be too close to their home, could bring “the wrong element” to the neighborhood, may increase density, or a litany of other excuses, and bring an abrupt halt to the project.
The panel on Friday consisted of Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman; State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr.; Diana Weir, the Southampton Town director of housing and community development; Michael Daly, a member of the Town Zoning Board of Appeals who works as a real estate agent and founded the group East End YIMBY, or Yes In My Backyard; and Ralph Fasano, the executive director of Concern for Independent Living, which is proposing a 60-unit affordable housing development in Southampton.
Along with the panel, members of the community who attended the event asked questions and provided insight that broadened the conversation.
Some of the topics discussed included whether there is a way to ensure that workforce or affordable housing could be specifically targeted for people already working in the community, how the process is flawed, what affordable housing means, a possible half-percent transfer tax on real estate transactions to go toward affordable housing projects, and how to move beyond a “Not In My Backyard” — or NIMBY — mentality.
Moving Beyond NIMBY-ism
The Speonk Commons affordable apartment complex was proposed as a 51-unit development on 4 acres, just months after Mr. Schneiderman took over as Southampton Town supervisor.
Georgica Green Ventures proposed the development that would be located next to the Long Island Rail Road station in Speonk, within walking distance of the hamlet business district, and near blighted and abandoned buildings.
“It just seemed like the perfect opportunity site,” Mr. Schneiderman said, acknowledging there was a need for more affordable housing in the town.
Shortly after the development was pitched, the community roared, fearing that the project would increase traffic on already heavily traveled roads, add too many new students to the school and increase density in general.
Mr. Schneiderman said he wanted to look into why the project was hitting a wall with the community, so he met with Speonk-resident Craig Catalanotto over a beer at Brewology.
“They thought it was too much for the site, but clearly they understood the need and wanted to actually make something happen,” Mr. Schneiderman said.
After meeting, he said, the town worked with the developer to get another $1.5 million in funding for the project while also lowering the number of units to 38.
Mr. Schneiderman said when the Town Board voted to approve the application, many of the same people who had originally strongly opposed the project, now spoke in favor of it, and gave their approval.
“We really got from dead against it, to embracing it,” he said.
Whenever communities find out about an affordable housing project being proposed in their neighborhood, public outcry is common.
“When the town makes a recommendation for an affordable housing project, then all the people who don’t want it run to town halls, scream and yell, go out of their minds and say stupid things, such as ‘I don’t want my maid living near me or those people who are going to climb over the fence and jump in my pool,’” Mr. Daly said. “People like Jay and town boards and village boards are left to hang out to dry, while all the NIMBYs come to meetings, and go out of their minds.”
Mr. Daly is a member of the Southampton Town ZBA and has embraced the YIMBY movement, which is the opposite of NIMBY.
Neighborhoods, he said, should have more of a say in what gets developed in their backyards because the town is at a point where the only way things get done is when people complain that there are not enough affordable places to live.
As more and more people against a project step up at public meetings and say how much they hate a project, the people who are in favor of the project get intimidated and back away.
“The good people are at home, watching television, eating Chunky Monkey ice cream and saying, ‘Oh, I’m sure that’ll be fine. They don’t need me. I’m not political,’” Mr. Daly said. “Going to a town or a village board meeting is intimidating, and the kind and gentle people typically are uncomfortable about standing up and being noticed.”
He said when people hear the term “affordable housing,” they automatically picture the worst case scenario and make it out to be the same thing as public housing. The same people then drive through The Bronx, see the numerous high-rise public housing projects and say they do not want those in the Hamptons.
“It’s not even conceivable that one of those would be near us,” he said. “We have parents living with children that don’t have extra rooms. We have brothers living in sisters’ basements. We have kids living in garages. We’re really at a breaking point, and we’re bleeding our own local people who can’t afford to live here anymore.”
What is Affordable, And Who Is It For?
Mr. Daly’s point of not having a “project” built in the Hamptons was reinforced when he pointed to two new developments on the East End: Sandy Hollow in Tuckahoe and Speonk Commons in Speonk.
Both developments, he said, turned out nicely, and the town would be able to build more of them if the public would allow it.
“Affordable housing is there for people who are from Section 8 all the way up to families of eight who are making $200,000 a year,” Mr. Daly said. “A family of eight, making $200,000 a year, can qualify for affordable housing today.”
Curtis Highsmith, the executive director of the Southampton Housing Authority and who was in the audience on Friday, said the town has a record of trying to identify what affordable housing is instead of coming up with a plan to establish what divisions of housing are needed.
What is affordable? Is $200,000 or $300,000 affordable? Is affordable housing intended to be available for rent or purchase? Is $1,500 rent too high?
“We understand that nothing is cheap around here,” Ms. Weir said. “Even affordable housing is not reasonable or affordable, so that’s our frustration.”
Along with these frustrations, town officials are struggling to get housing in place for people who work in Southampton.
Discrimination of any kind when putting people into the homes is prohibited, under the federal Fair Housing Act, Ms. Weir noted.
She said many senior citizens are working because they cannot afford to stay in their home. Some of these seniors want to stay in the area because their children or grandchildren are still here, and when they look to downsize, they should have the same opportunity as anyone else to get into workforce housing.
Ms. Weir also said the town cannot discriminate against people by age or even occupation.
But housing available based on income can restrict who is eligible to get into an affordable unit.
“There are income groups that are categorized for various different developments,” Mr. Fasano said. “In some ways, that does assure they will be people who are working in the community because they need to meet those income levels.”
Pamela Harwood of the Bridgehampton Citizens Advisory Committee, who was in Friday’s audience, said the topic of affordable housing comes up frequently at her group’s meetings, specifically from people who want their children who were born in the area to be able to continue living in Southampton so they can raise a family there.
People are also concerned about finding good reliable employees.
“We cannot maintain good employees here because they can’t afford to live here,” said Ann LaWall, director of the Southampton Business Alliance.
Many employees in the town, whether they work for the municipality, hospital or any other business, come from points west of Southampton Town.
One of the concerns with affordable housing developments is that the units go to outsiders — people who are not connected to Southampton.
But Ms. Weir said that’s hardly ever the case.
The town’s housing registry has over 1,000 people, she noted, and 92 percent of the registrants are local, while many others may be part of the workforce.
In the most recent lottery, where the town awarded 15 units in Speonk Commons and Sandy Hollow, 10 of the units were awarded to people who live in Southampton Town, according to Ms. Weir. Two of the units went to people who live in East Hampton Town and the other three were awarded to people who live in Manorville, Ridge and East Patchogue — all within a 50 mile radius of the town.
So the “myth” that people are going to be coming from the city to live in the affordable housing units, Ms. Weir said, needs to be busted because statistics do not show it to be true.
“They’re working here. They’re living here. They’re raising their kids here,” Ms. Weir said. “When we’re done with the units at Sandy Hollow and Speonk, I will have better statistics. But the statistics show that they’re mostly going to locals.”
“The piece that’s missing is for our people — our local people who are working here — the ones who need it,” said Southampton Housing Authority Chairwoman Bonnie Cannon, who attended Friday’s conversation. “How can they afford to buy these houses?”
Today, many people struggle with credit, and while the town has suggested assisting people to come up with down payments on the affordable units, Ms. Cannon said the town should look for creative ways to get people with bad credit into the homes.
Mr. Schneiderman said keeping the units affordable is very difficult, so the town uses a program called the 72H program. Under the program, the county has a right through the Suffolk County Tax Act to take over a property when someone stops paying taxes. Once in its possession, the county can transfer it to the town for affordable housing purposes.
Mr. Highsmith said the town has built 20 units under 72H and currently has eight waiting to be worked on.
“Part of the challenge with these properties is that they are overwhelmed with a lot of problems … and we have to make them legal before bringing them forward,” he said.
Mr. Highsmith added that many of the parcels are too small or are difficult to work with because of needed code variances and permit issues.
He suggested better legislation that would define minimum size lots and number of units per lot, and once established, recommended the Planning Department handle the projects in order to keep politics out of them.
A Flawed Process
The Southampton Business Alliance Housing Initiative was formed in 2008 when then Town Supervisor Patrick “Skip” Heaney needed an organization to help create more workforce housing opportunities.
Tony Panza, the chairman of the initiative and who attended Friday’s Press Sessions event, said the initial goal was to construct two to three houses per year.
“Over time, that obviously has not happened,” he said of the 10 years the organization has been active. “We’ve gotten five parcels, two of which we were able to put accessory apartments on.
“Because the town is so political, every time we were told, ‘Oh, we have a piece,’ and it was introduced, basically the community would come out against it, and quite honestly, the supervisor at that point would back off,” he added.
Mr. Panza suggested taking the responsibility of adding workforce housing out of the hands of politicians, and instead put it in the hands of a committee created by the town that would not have to listen to the community.
“If we’re putting a project together, then let’s do it,” he said. “Let that committee work toward its end, and I think more and more projects will be completed.”
Ms. LaWall said the Business Alliance was moving away from workforce housing because of increased frustration with the town. She also said many people are retiring now because they have been working on the mission for so long.
“The frustration of going through the process with the town and the community is making it very slow,” Ms. LaWall said.
Instead of helping with building workforce housing, she said, the organization is exploring the idea of issuing grants to help people put down payments on housing.
The 60-unit project Mr. Fasano has proposed in Southampton on County Road 39 is getting ready to go through the long and costly review process. He shared the steps his organization and others go through when committing to a project.
Long Island makes up 12 percent of the state’s population, yet over the years, it has received only 4 percent of low income housing tax credits offered because it is difficult to develop on the island.
Mr. Fasano said when funding is announced, his organization looks to secure a site, which is normally expensive because it has to be secured for up to two years while a project is reviewed. In addition to securing a site, the organization hires an architect, attorneys and engineers to design the plans.
Once a plan is developed, the organization can apply for funding, and the results can often take several months.
“Either you get it, or you don’t,” he said. “About one-out-of-every-four applications gets funding.”
The cost of putting an application together can be about $100,000, he said.
Then, if the developer does not have an as-of-right project, the application has to go in front of the zoning board, and then an architectural review board and planning board — a process than can take between 18 to 24 months.
“People know it’s notoriously difficult to develop on Long Island, and even more difficult in different areas of Long Island,” he said. “When the state’s picking applications, they’re making a decision, ‘Well, is that locality really friendly to what we do? Should we invest our dollars there or should we go someplace where it’s easier?’ That’s where I think we need to work on convincing the state that we are friendly here, and we need to increase that 4 percent, up to the 12 percent, which we deserve.”
With an already convoluted process, things change when new government officials with different goals get elected.
Ms. Weir said the changing of administrations can often lead to projects getting left by the wayside because of new priorities and prerogatives.
“We have a very aggressive and supportive board, who is doing more to bring more affordable housing,” she said.
In January, the Town Board approved new legislation that will allow more accessory apartments to be used for affordable housing.
Under the prior law, Mr. Schneiderman said, anyone could build an accessory apartment as long as they had a ¾-acre property. Many of the larger pieces of land that were eligible, he said, were far from downtowns, not close to public transportation and shopping, and the owners did not need the extra income.
The new law lowered the size of the allowable parcel to ½ acre, provided it is offered as an affordable apartment.
“Now, anyone who wants to build an accessory apartment, a half-acre or larger, can do it, as long as the rent meets our standards and the person using it is income qualified,” Mr. Schneiderman said.
He added that thousands of properties in the town are now eligible to have an accessory apartment.
At the state level, Mr. Thiele is working on legislation that would collect a half-percent tax on all real estate transfers that could be used for affordable housing projects on the East End of Long Island.
The law would act very similar to the Community Preservation Fund, which is comprised of money collected from a 2-percent tax on most real estate transactions on the East End. The bulk of the money is put toward land preservation, while 20 percent of the money can go to water quality improvement initiatives.
“You’re not going to create more affordable housing, and you’re not going to improve housing opportunities without money,” Mr. Thiele said. “I couldn’t improve housing opportunities without money. Money is going to be necessary.”
But some questioned whether the half of a percent was too much, and suggested possibly taking the money out of the CPF instead.
Ms. LaWall said the town has done an “outstanding” job on saving open space and maintaining the character of the town.
She added that the half-percent should come from the existing 2-percent tax, and that the Business Alliance has taken a stance against Mr. Thiele’s legislation.
But the lawmaker said that wasn’t an option.
“The idea that somehow there is extra money laying around in the Community Preservation Fund that’s unspoken for, that you can do this with the existing 2 percent, is just a fallacy,” Mr. Thiele said. “It just isn’t true.”
Ms. Weir said the beauty of the half-percent is that people can use the money to purchase a fixer upper and help rehabilitate the house.
If the money is used, a lien would be put on the house so when it’s re-sold, the money would be paid back.
Governor Andrew Cuomo still has to sign the bill — which was approved by both the Assembly and Senate — to move forward, but Mr. Thiele is confident it will be signed before December 31.
Once it receives the governor’s signature, the towns will have to pass a local law to implement the bill, create and adopt a housing plan to show how the money will be utilized, and then schedule townwide referendums — which could happen as early as November 2020.
Mr. Thiele added that he expects between $10 and $12 million to become available for affordable projects under the law.
“It would add another half a percent,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “I know that with the 2 percent, people feared that was going to change the real estate market or hurt the real estate market. We have probably the best real estate market in the country, so they clearly did not hurt our real estate market and creating all this common wave. So certainly, it has added value to everybody’s property.”
Concerns about property values hold water. When someone spends a large amount of money on a home, they hope that the value of the home will increase over time.
Mr. Catalanotto said he was originally against the Speonk Commons development because he held the same fear as everyone else: his property value would decrease.
But he was not looking at the full picture at first, he said. He was not looking at what the affordable units would do in terms of the economy of Speonk.
“We have a pizza store, we have a bagel store, hair salons and gas stations,” Mr. Catalanotto said. “We have 72 new neighbors coming in, all of which are going to use the surrounding stores and services.”
Business districts in the Town of Southampton are struggling, he said, so why would the town not want to look at different models and say, “Hey, it might be a good idea to bring in some people here that are going to use our main streets.”
Instead, he said, once the season is over, all that is left are tumbleweeds and a bunch of problems that the town does not know how to fix.
“Affordable housing is one of those fixes, in my opinion,” Mr. Catalanotto said.
“Furthermore, Speonk and Sandy Hollow, they are going to offer us success models that we’re going to be able to point to and say, ‘Guess what folks, you have nothing to be afraid of. These are our neighbors. They’re part of our community.’”