Pictured Above: Volunteers from Shelter Island helped build a Habitat for Humanity home in Riverside earlier this year |. Habitat for Humanity of Long Island photo

“All Hands on Housing” may be the slogan for the East Hampton Town Board’s efforts to find affordable housing for local residents, but it’s also a pretty apropos slogan for efforts afoot this spring throughout the five East End towns, as they prepare for public ballot referendums on new Community Housing Funds, modeled after the Community Preservation Fund.

If the plans are approved by voters in each of the five East End Towns, each town’s fund would receive money from a half-percent real estate transfer tax, payed by buyers of properties within that town. Because of changes to the amount of a purchase exempted from both the housing and CPF tax, buyers of properties at the lower end of the market (under $1 million on the South Fork), would actually pay less to these funds than they would pay under the current CPF program.

Each town must draft a plan for how to spend the money before they can begin to collect it, and the language of the referendums must be sent by the towns to the Suffolk County Board of Elections by Aug. 8 of this year in order to appear on the November 8 ballot.

Southampton, Shelter Island and East Hampton towns are looking to have the plans ready for public hearing this summer, before the November vote, while Southold and Riverhead towns were still on the fence about holding the referendum this year, as of press time.

Here are some highlights of what’s going on in the individual towns:

Southampton Town

Southampton Town unveiled a draft of its housing plan at a special work session on May 20, in anticipation of the upcoming referendum.

The plan, prepared by VHB Engineering, is in part the result of numerous public information-gathering sessions from hamlets throughout Southampton Town over the past two years.

The plan recommends using money from the housing fund for a first-time homebuyer assistance program, employer assistance for housing, providing construction loans, rehabilitation of community housing, the acquisition of property in existing housing units and housing counseling services.

The plan also recommends providing more housing for senior citizens, more houses aimed at the “middle market,” investment in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and finding ideal locations for transit-oriented development. 

“To get this referendum passed, the money portion is a key player in this,” said Councilwoman Cyndi McNamara after hearing an overview of the plan by Southampton Housing and Community Development Director Kara Bak. “What percentage do you want to put toward this or that?”

“We have to think really hard about how we spend the money, to get the most bang for our buck,” agreed Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, who estimated the fund could bring in as much as $10 million per year in Southampton Town alone. “If the most people can afford is a $400,000 house but the only house they can find is $900,000, do we want to tie up half a million dollars (for homebuyer assistance)? If I take in $10 million per year, I can do 20 of those. But with rental apartments, the rent goes to pay that back. That’s way more efficient. There may be times it makes sense to bridge the affordability gap, at the right number.”

Ms. McNamara added that the town would have equity in the house if it provided that type of funding, which would be returned to the town if the house is sold.

“We have to have so much transparency here,” said Mr. Schneiderman. 

Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni, a volunteer firefighter in Sag Harbor, where he is a retired social studies teacher, reminded the board that the starting teacher’s salary here is around $50,000, and salaries being paid to staff in town hall are around that same range — well below the area median income numbers used to qualify people for affordable housing. He added that one of the newest members of the Southampton ambulance corps is a resident of the Sandy Hollow Cove apartment complex, one of the town’s first efforts at affordable housing that faced years of controversy before it was built. 

“When I was East Hampton Town Supervisor, I had the salary of the supervisor, but it wasn’t enough for me to live in the community,” said Mr. Schneiderman. “At the same time, the mayor of Sag Harbor was priced out and the supervisor of Southold was also struggling. We had three municipal leaders, and none of them could live in the community they were in charge of. This is going back 20 years. When the people who protect public safety and finance can’t live in the community, you’re in trouble.”

Other efforts afoot would involve  code changes. Town Planner Janice Scherer suggested Southampton look into allowing more legal multi-family housing, while Michael Daly, of East End YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard), said he’d also like to see more done to legalize accessory apartments.

“People have to go to extraordinary measures (to legalize existing apartments),” he said. “That’s why we have such a shadow inventory of unpermited accessory apartments. People are doing it typically because they really need it, or someone in their family really needs it.”

Mr. Daly pledged his group’s support to advocating for the referendum — the town can educate people about the nuts and bolts of the referendum, but they can’t spend money to advocate for it. That task will fall to community groups outside town government.

East Hampton Town

East Hampton is anticipating receiving about $6 million per year if the fund is established there, East Hampton Planning Director Jeremy Samuelson told the Town Board at its May 17 work session which was dedicated to the town’s “All Hands on Housing” effort.

Mr. Samuelson said East Hampton is looking to hold public hearings on its housing plan in July of this year. 

The town is looking to use the money for down payment assistance, land acquisition, project design and development and for accessory dwelling units.

Mr. Samuelson said a new idea that could work would be an affordable easement program, in which homeowners could sell an easement to the town ensuring that their home would remain affordable if they sell it, allowing them to stay in their homes now, but be able to take advantage of the equity they’ve built up, similar to the sale of development rights on a property.

East Hampton, which leads the East End in affordable housing developments already constructed, would also be looking to use some of the funding to maintain existing affordable housing, both owned by the town and perhaps by private homeowners as well, in order to preserve the length of usability of its affordable housing stock.

“There’s no one approach that’s going to solve this problem, and we aren’t going to build our way out of this problem,” said Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc.

The East Hampton Town Housing Authority already manages four housing complexes, a total of 130 units, where 291 people live. 

The Housing Authority is in the process of designing a 50-unit rental complex on Three Mile Harbor Road, which will be housed in five buildings, with a common area, an advanced wastewater treatment system, and using green design principles that has already won the project Vision Long Island’s 2022 Smart Growth Award. A sizable number of the units will have two bedrooms, which Housing Authority Director Katy Casey told the board is the size apartment most needed. 

Also underway is a subdivision of 12 acres of town-owned land at 395 Pantigo Road, which could be divided into between 12 and 16 housing lots, in addition to a five-acre open recreation area that is currently all woods. The town has recently added an affordable housing overlay zoning to the project, which allows up to four houses per acre to be built there.

The town has prepared four different possible subdivisions that take into account different constraints with the property’s configuration, but the plan, said Councilman David Lys, who is overseeing the project, is to have the town enter into 99-year land leases with homeowners who would purchase the houses but not the underlying land.

Also in the works is a project on Route 114 currently underway in partnership with the Sag Harbor Housing Trust. 

The project would be between 50 and 60 rental units, for people of median income who live and work in East Hampton Town or Sag Harbor Village, said Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, who is the town board liaison to this project. The town would finance the construction and sell it to the Housing Authority, which would maintain it and approve tenants.

Residents who wish to live in the Three Mile Harbor or Route 114 projects would need to sign up on a list for a housing lottery for each complex.

Shelter Island Town

Shelter Island could see around $1.1 million annually from a fund if real estate transfers there are at all like those seen in 2021, the town’s Community Housing Fund Advisory Board Chairwoman Elizabeth Hanley told the Shelter Island Town Board at its May 16 work session.

She added that the board had crunched the numbers on whether the increase in the exemption from the programs (from the first $250,000 of a house’s value to the first $400,000) would have a detrimental effect on CPF revenue and found that, based on 2021 numbers, the town’s CPF would receive $50,000 less per year under the new program, just one percent of the $5 million the fund received that year.

Town Attorney Stephen Kiely was quick to point out that this fall’s referendum is not on increasing the CPF tax exemption — that will happen without input from the voters — but on whether to create the new housing fund.

Ms. Hanley said the Advisory Board is looking forward to public input on potential uses of the funding for housing while drafting its plan.

“Whether or not we get the funding, we can still use the plan,” said Councilwoman Amber Brach-Williams. “If the referendum doesn’t pass, we will have to look at other funding sources.”

“The Cottages” in Mattituck proved more than a decade ago to be a successful example of how to provide an equity-building option near a downtown area.

Southold Town

Southold Town issued a request for proposals (RFP) for a consultant to prepare its housing plan in mid-April, with the intent of having a first draft of the plan completed by July 15, followed by public input in late July and adoption of the plan by Aug. 17. But board members were skeptical as they drafted the RFP in April that the work would be done in time to place the proposal on this November’s ballot.

“I think it’s impossible to do anything full and thorough by the November ballot,” said Town Supervisor Scott Russell as the board discussed the RFP at its April 12 work session. “The local law, I think, has to include the plan.”

Other board members said they would like to push forward with the plan anyway.

“We can work toward that goal, knowing we probably won’t hit it and it will be on the ballot in November 2023,” said Councilwoman Jill Doherty.

Councilwoman Louisa Evans, who represents Fishers Island on the board, said there’s little support for the proposal on the island.

“People on Fishers Island think it’s not going to help the people on Fishers Island,” she said. “It’s not that they’re against affordable housing, but that would be money coming from Fishers Island taxpayers and probably not coming back at all.”

She then asked if it would be possible to exclude Fishers Island from the fund.

“You can’t just exclude a section of town from a referendum,” said Mr. Russell. “Rather than exclude themselves, they should be a robust part of the process.”

Councilwoman Sarah Nappa added that, even if other aspects of affordable housing weren’t appealing on Fishers Island, perhaps assistance for first time homebuyers would have appeal there.

The Southold Town Board has also set a public hearing for a proposed zoning change for a six-acre property upon which housing advocate Rona Smith has proposed to build 24 rental housing units, for June 21 at 4:30. The change of zone would be from an Agricultural Conservation district to an Affordable Housing District.

The proposal, which has received criticism from the public and has little support on the town board, also met with criticism from the town’s Planning Board, which said in an April memo that it was not supported by the town’s Comprehensive Plan because it’s not near a hamlet center and it’s in an agricultural conservation district.

“I would look toward the public having their feelings validated,” said Councilman Brian Mealy as the board debated at their April 26 work session whether to hold the public hearing. “I see it as a potential to make a connection with the community that this project affects.”

Riverhead Town

Riverhead Town officials are skeptical that the fund will be much benefit in a town that already has 2,300 units of housing that is affordable, according to the town’s Community Development Agency Director, Dawn Thomas, who gave a presentation on the referendum at the town board’s March 30 work session.

“Our CPF experience here in Riverhead is very different from the South Fork, and even Southold,” she said. “This was very much pushed by the South Fork towns. Southampton and East Hampton really do need that. Riverhead has been incredibly responsible over the years in developing affordable housing of every size, shape and type.”

Deputy Town Attorney Anne Marie Prudenti added that the town could be losing Community Preservation Fund revenue because of the increased exemption, which would go from the first $150,000 to the first $200,000 of the sale price in Riverhead and Southold towns.

She asked the town to crunch the numbers on whether they would see a decrease in CPF revenue. 

“Throughout the years, this money was for land preservation, and then for water quality, and now it’s for development…. That’s totally different,” she said.

Ms. Thomas said programs like providing first-time homebuyer assistance, or purchasing existed blighted and vacant downtown homes and refurbishing them could a good way for Riverhead to use the fund, and added that she’s met with representatives from Habitat for Humanity who would like to do this kind of work in Riverhead.

Riverhead had not yet decided whether to go forward with the referendum as of press time.

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

One thought on “All Hands on Housing

  1. I have generally found the Beacon’s coverage of east end housing to be informed and clear. So, I was disappointed to read the rundown on affordable housing published in today’s paper. I am one of the developers involved in Southold. My joint venture partner, David Gallo, and his company, Georgica Green Ventures, are also the unmentioned developers at Three-Mile Harbor in East Hampton. We are working together to build 24 units of workforce affordable housing in Cutchogue. I think it is a mischaracterization to say that this proposal has received much public criticism. Especially “public.” I have not seen criticism, although I have heard that the Town Board has received some letters. I have no idea what’s in those letters.
    If you would like to have more information on what is happening and why the Town Board voted unanimously to schedule a public hearing, I could send you the Planning Board memo and our response. Send me your direct email and I’ll send you those documents. By the way, we’re optimistic about the outcome of the public hearing based on our discussions with experts in the fields related to the PB comments.

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