By Stephen J. Kotz
In a region where a shabby one-bedroom apartment can easily cost $2,000 a month, Southampton Town leaders have spoken for years about the need to provide more affordable housing for the young people who work in schools and the area’s many small businesses from retail shops to restaurants. Despite those pledges, little has been done, according to newly elected Supervisor Jay Schneiderman.
“I could count on my fingers and toes the number of affordable apartments that have been provided in the past decade,” he said this week as he discussed his vision to ease that shortage by making it easier for some people to convert a portion of their homes into accessory apartments.
In an interview this week, Mr. Schneiderman, who discussed the idea on the campaign trail last fall, said he had yet to formally broach the topic with his colleagues on the town board, pending Tuesday’s special election to replace Councilman Brad Bender.
“Basically, we’d be pairing up young professionals with housing close to where they work,” he said on Monday. That housing would come from senior citizens, or other town residents within certain income limits, who would be willing to create a legal and safe accessory apartment out of a portion of their existing house and enter into an agreement with the town to continue to rent it as workforce housing on a year-round basis.
A Rutgers University study commissioned by the town nearly a decade ago pointed to an eventual need for up to 300 affordable apartments per year, Mr. Schneiderman said. His proposed program would come nowhere near to fulfilling that need, he conceded. “If we could create 25 new apartments in the first year, that would be a start,” he said, adding that if the program went well, it could be expanded to create 50, or maybe even 100 new apartments per year “and eventually put a dent in the problem.”
Mr. Schneiderman said the program would pay dividends beyond allowing people to get out of the often unsafe and illegal living situations they are currently in. Noting that the eastern half of the town would be targeted first because that’s where the greatest need for affordable housing is, Mr. Schneiderman said the program could eventually help alleviate traffic and provide a source of potential volunteers for local fire departments and ambulance companies.
To make the program work, Mr. Schneiderman said the town would most likely have to partner with a local bank to provide low-cost loans to residents who want to undertake a conversion of their home that would involve adding a separate kitchen and separate entrances as well as sealing it off from the rest of the living space. “If the town backed the note, the lender would be able to offer a lower interest rate,” he said.
If an apartment rented for $1,500 a month, perhaps $500 would go to help pay off the loan, a small administrative fee would go to the town, and the balance would go to the landlord.
“That could provide a valuable source of income for a senior citizen,” he said. “If you are a single mom with a couple of kids struggling to make enough to pay the mortgage, it could be just enough to make the difference.”
The town could administer the program through its own housing office or contract out with a consultant to run it, the supervisor said.
If a landlord dropped out of the program, they would be responsible for paying off the loan and be required to eliminate the accessory apartment. That would help prevent people from simply deciding to rent the units on a seasonal basis and cash in on the higher rental income they could earn, he said.
Mr. Schneiderman said affordable housing projects have often raised the ire of neighbors because they typically are too large — developers, he said, will refuse to rent units at below market rates unless they can build more units than allowed by existing zoning, resulting in a concentration in a given neighborhood.
The accessory apartment program would avoid that problem by scattering the units around town. Mr. Schneiderman said he would be open to discussing ways to limit the number that could be created in any given neighborhood — or in any school district.
Mr. Schneiderman said he was ambivalent about another proposal that has been bandied about over the years: allowing the owners of large estate-sized houses to create an accessory apartment or even a carriage house for employees.
“I’m not totally opposed to it,” he said, “but it’s part of that old plantation model: The only way to live in the Hamptons is to work for a multimillionaire. So if you leave your job, you lose your housing too.”