July 05, 2006

Town Talks Affordable Housing Crisis

Young and old. Black and white. Male and female. They come from all walks of life — teachers, nurses, daycare providers — and yet their shared plea resonates. Across the board, they can no longer afford to live and work on the South Fork of Long Island. And if action is not taken soon, scores of longtime residents will be forced to leave the area in search of affordable housing.

Members of the Southampton Town Board were joined by members of The League of Women Voters of the Hamptons at last Friday's work session to watch "Trouble in Paradise: The Affordable Housing Crisis On The South Fork," a LWVH project aimed at raising awareness.

The video features elected officials, police and emergency personnel, and a plethora of residents and service professionals discussing a crucial issue that touches a common chord: Affordable housing.

The film, said Southampton Councilman Chris Nuzzi, "gave faces to individuals who are really being affected by the real estate prices out here and our economy. There are middle class working people, professionals, schoolteachers."

But, said Judi Roth, vice president of the LWVH, the question raised by some after watching the video remains: "What's the next step?"

After the presentation, members of the board gave their views on what needs to be done to tackle the issue.

"When people call it a crisis, nowadays, that's exactly what it is," said Nuzzi. "My fear is if we don't start addressing it now, within the next several months, we may lose our ability to effectively address it into the future."

To that end, Nuzzi recently sponsored a memorializing resolution requesting that New York State increase the threshold by which first-time homeowners would pay the Community Preservation Tax for approved properties from $250,000 to $500,000.

Nuzzi has also requested a percentage of CPF money be used toward land purchases for workforce housing.

Nuzzi has been in favor of utilizing either a quarter or half percent of the 2% CPF tax. Because the state recently extended the life of the CPF another 10 years from 2020 to 2030, "we have 24 more years that we can borrow against future revenues to make important environmental purchases today. Why not use an existing tax instead of creating a new one?"

Using an existing tax, one that's not generated by taxpayers, could be the solution, said Nuzzi.

The resolution has been sent to Senator Ken LaValle and Assemblyman Fred Thiele in hopes that they can create state legislation.

Councilwoman Linda Kabot agreed that the time is now for towns to act. "We've got to get this issue off the back burner and onto the front burner."

Kabot said that there are a number of ways local government can galvanize to affect change, including encouraging the development of workforce housing through zoning, updating the town's master plan to facilitate affordable housing, and seeking financial support from the state.

The issue, she admitted, is heated, with NIMBYism.

And that, said Roth, is where the LWVH hopes to step in and shatter certain myths about affordable housing with solid facts.

One falsehood portrayed is affordable housing will bring a host of new families to the area. Not true, said Long Island Housing Partnership Vice President Diana Weir. In a recent Bridgehampton affordable housing lottery, only one home was designated for a family who did not live and work locally.

And, said human resources directors in both Southampton and East Hampton, the stark reality is that with housing costs escalating, it has become difficult to fill civil service jobs with local residents. Subsequently, affordable housing creates problems in regard to employee retention and recruitment.

Another myth abolished is that affordable housing adds children to the tax base. Also untrue, said Weir, who pointed out that statistically, attached homes or townhouses do not add the number of children to the school population, or add to the school tax burden that single family homes with a yard do, and are tax positive to school districts.

Another concern is density. John White, director of housing for the Town of Southampton, pointed out affordable housing could mean "adaptive reuse" of pre-existing properties. In addition, town transfer of development rights programs mean density is shifted to a desirable area, such as hamlet centers or planned development districts while preserving open space for posterity.

Other misnomers include the belief that affordable housing lowers property values; not true, say area realtors and builders. And the LWVH points out that affordable housing must be built in compliance with regulations of the Suffolk County Health Department relative to water flow and sewage, so there is no difference between affordable and market rate housing in that regard.

Nuzzi said another crucial piece of the affordable housing puzzle is economic development in planned development areas such as Gabreski Airport. "You've got to have the jobs for people to be able to continue to live here."

There's a need, said Nuzzi, to work together and build a consensus among government officials, federal organizations, and housing advocates. "That's one way government can get involved."

Tom Neely, Southampton Town director of public transportation and traffic safety director, and director of the East End Transportation Council, agreed. Neely has advocated the formation of a working group comprised of representatives from each of the five East End towns to study the link between affordable housing and transportation and land use issues.

Southampton Town Councilman Steve Kenny said the video was a valuable educational tool and should be made readily available to residents.

The film is being shown on public access cable television and can be ordered from the LWVH by sending a check in the amount of $10, plus $1.50 for the accompanying fact booklet, to LWVH, P.O. Box 2253, East Hampton, NY 11937.

"We're fooling ourselves," said one resident in the film, "if we think we can continue to have a resort area with no workers to live in that area."

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