May 03, 2006
Documentary Spotlights Affordable Housing
Social circles often meditate on statistics and figures when conversations turn to the lack of affordable housing on the South Fork. A new project underscores the individuals impacted by this issue, pulling them out of the shadows and giving the "crisis" a face everyone can recognize.
The League of Women Voters of the Hamptons premiered a documentary on Saturday at Southampton High School titled Trouble in Paradise: The Affordable Housing Crisis on the South Fork. More than 20 people attended, including County Legislator Jay Schneiderman, South-ampton Town Councilwoman Linda Kabot and town housing director John White. A second screening will be held on Saturday at 10 a.m. in the auditorium of East Hampton High School on Long Lane.
Creator and executive producer Barbara Jordan, a past co-president of LWV, traced the economic consequences and personal heartbreak unfurled in the wake of the affordable housing crisis on the South Fork.
Rule of thumb is that affordable housing should cost no more than 30% of a family's gross income, leaving them sufficient funds for other needs.
The 40-minute advocacy piece shows how the shortage of these homes has hurt employers in recruiting and retaining firefighters, police officers, healthcare workers, teachers, skilled tradesmen, civil service employees, bankers, retailers, and other employee groups.
"In the last 17 hirings, we've only hired seven local people," Todd Sarris, Chief of Police in the town of East Hampton reported in the film. The inability to hire local people has created some deployment problems when answering a call. The department has to allow for some lag time as officers commute to the scene.
Bridgehampton National Bank detailed similar employment figures. Of the more than 120 employees at the bank, 30% live outside the immediate area.
The film shows how the lack of reasonably-priced homes leaves no stone unturned, as it touches every demographic, from single adults fresh out of college, to young families just starting out, to senior citizens settling in.
The problem is most "acute" on the South Fork, Schneiderman remarked in the movie. "The price of housing has gotten so far ahead of local wages that much of the workforce is now priced out of the housing markets," he said.
The documentary also dispels some myths associated with affordable housing — that it ruins neighborhood character and values; the homes are of poor quality; it attracts non-locals to the area; it adds to the school populations and increases school taxes; and that it negatively impacts sewage flow and traffic.
In the film, real estate agent James R. McLauchlen, who owns a company of the same name, pointed out a subdivision in Water Mill built in the early 1990s with houses ranging from $122,000 to $138,000. The surrounding properties had recently sold for millions of dollars. "In my opinion, affordable housing has not had any measurable effect upon the values of nearby homes," he said.
Bill Siegel, president of New Age Homes, said his company builds entry-level houses that adhere to the latest code and Energy Star standards, making them quality dwellings. And Diana Weir, vice president of the Long Island Housing Partnership, reported that 95% of the 3500 homes the organization has built have gone to people already living in the communities. She also said that single and separate homes tend to place more children in school districts than do town homes or flats with a homeownership component. This distinction applies to traffic impact as well.
If homes are designed with proper sewage treatment, "the ground water can be more protected than a standard septic system which provides no treatment for wastewater," Bob DeLuca,
president of Group for the South Fork, said in the documentary. "Therefore an intensely developed subdivision puts more wastewater into the ground untreated."
"People who are opposed to affordable housing are more vociferous than people who are in favor of it" simply because of misinformation, Jordan said after the film. At this point, she asked the audience to contribute their comments and suggestions.
Bruce Beyer recommended taxing the affluent or using existing taxes, such as the two percent transfer tax administered during the sale of a house, and putting the money back into the local workforce.
"I think that would be unconstitutional," Jordan replied.
Employers need to be better engaged in affordable housing discussions, said Doreen Fratello. "They need to come forward."
"What do we really want here?" asked Ava Mack, who added that she was tired of people just talking about the issue. "It's time for someone to do something."
There has been "a lot of talk and not enough action," Councilwoman Kabot later concurred. Southampton Town is slowly addressing the crisis, she said, adding that the problem is more prevalent east of the Shinnecock Canal. "But it's incumbent on the town board for us to move forward."
White commented that it was time to start producing more solutions. He said it was important to support elected officials who take on the issue because they often feel isolated.
"I think 'courage' is the operative word," White said, adding that people who want to stay here should make their message clear.
According to LWV, housing prices on the South Fork are more than three times the national average of $188,000. During the last four years, home prices have increased 81% while salaries have increased only 14%, the group reports.