August 09, 2006
HUD Honors Levy's 'Vehicle of Hope'
In his inaugural address, County Executive Steve Levy said, "It is imperative for the health of this county to change attitudes related to affordable housing."
In the ensuing 18 months, the efforts he's made to put action behind those words garnered honors from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. Recently HUD tapped Suffolk County to receive the prestigious Robert L. Woodson Award. Only three other municipalities across the nation received the award, which recognizes government efforts to reduce regulatory barriers to affordable housing.
According to the Regulatory Barriers Clearinghouse, the award commemorates the lifetime work of Woodson, a former HUD chief of staff, who dedicated himself to empowering people through housing and urban reform. Levy mirrored that philosophy of dedication in his historic address, revealing, "I sought public office to allow others after me to experience the same type of Long Island bliss I had the good fortune to live out."
That 'bliss' includes a place to live. The Woodson award committee cited numerous housing initiatives undertaken by the Levy administration during its first year and a half. From the gate, Levy named renowned housing advocate Jim Morgo to head his Department of Economic Development and Workforce Housing. The pair convened a workforce housing commission comprised of representatives from the housing and building industries as well as representatives from towns and villages across the island. They worked to identify a slew of sites for potential affordable housing development.
Noting the county's distinction as one of the most expensive housing markets in the country, and how the high cost of housing is driving away young families, the Woodson committee's report states, "To prevent further flight that threatens the County's future economic health, the newly elected county executive took several actions in 2004 to identify and remove regulatory barriers to affordable housing development in the county." The report extols the creation of both the Housing Commission and Levy's Red Tape Reduction Plan.
Established early last year, the RTRP streamlines the permitting process for housing developments that include affordable units. At a press conference announcing the award, Charles Mancini, the builder working on The Courtyards at Southampton, estimated Levy's fast-track program has shaved anywhere from eight to eighteen months from the overall project's process.
The Woodson panel opined the RTRP "substantially impacted the complex nature of regulatory issues at the county level" resulting in the creation of 300 new affordable units during its first year of implementation. Overall Levy has laid claim to 500 units of affordable housing since he took office. On the East End, projects include Millbrook Gables in Riverhead, Kairos Village in West Greenport, the Bridgehampton Mews, the Courtyards and a yet to be named development in Westhampton Beach.
"The future of Suffolk County is not a matter of chance. It's a matter of choice," Levy declared after he was sworn in. Acknowledging the power to make the zoning decisions that promote affordable housing lies with individual town and village governments, the Woodson panel nonetheless touted county government for taking on the roles of "convener/coordinator, educator, expediter, and cajoler."
Bob Weiboldt of the Long Island Builders Institute added accolades during celebration of the award: "You can take the position that the state constitution does not give counties housing powers, or you can take the position — as Suffolk County and Steve Levy did — that a county can do everything within its power to expedite and encourage affordable housing."
The position and actions that followed appeared to fulfill one of Levy's inaugural promises: "Government can be a vehicle of hope that can break down the walls of social and economic injustice." If the Woodson award is an indicator, the vehicle has shifted into first gear.