Editorial: Fix Housing? Fix Schools?

Pictured Above: The Cottages in Mattituck, a 22-unit affordable community, while under construction in 2007. | New York State Housing and Community Renewal photo

As the brouhaha in February over Governor Hochul’s proposed sweeping accessory dwelling unit legislation makes painfully clear, we still have a lot of work left to do to find the balance between safe and attainable housing, the environment, our schools and our communities.

Much of this comes down to how much of a role local governments want the state to have in our lives.

As the objection to a proposed state mandate to allow accessory dwelling units on residential property shows, zoning decisions are best made when they’re made by leaders with their feet on the ground in the communities they serve.

The good news is that each of the five East End towns need to devote considerable energy this year to putting together municipal housing plans in anticipation of a public referendum this fall on Community Housing Funds, special revenue sources for attainable housing paid for through a 1/2 percent real estate transfer tax, similar to the existing Community Preservation Fund that funds land preservation.

This is the time for each community on the East End to decide its own priorities — from providing assistance to first-time homebuyers to building affordable communities, to buying and rehabilitating existing buildings to add to each town’s affordable housing stock.

This framework, drafted by State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, is the essence of local home rule in New York State — providing towns with the opportunity to chart their own courses. It’s an idea Mr. Thiele, who chairs the Assembly’s Local Governments Committee, has long championed and it’s an idea that was at the heart of his and other legislators’ objection to the governor’s accessory dwelling unit mandate.

While that mandate was dead in the water by mid-February, the debate it sparked laid bare another New York truth: the way we fund schools in this state, primarily through local real estate property taxes, has long kept the burden of paying for public education on the backs of the communities that are least able to sustain it. This is one area where local control has not served society as a whole.

More housing (with the possible exception of senior housing) inevitably brings more kids to an area, and providing competent schools for these kids is a burden borne, to a great degree, by property owners in individual school districts. 

You don’t have to look much farther than the recent controversy over expansion of the Riverhead Central School District to see how this is already affecting our kids. While Riverhead remains by far the most affordable East End area for working families to raise their kids, its Pulaski Street School and Middle School are bursting at the seams due to increases in student enrollment, a problem that voters declined to address in two recent referendums.

Even with a major boost in state aid that allowed the district to not increase property taxes in 2021 — Riverhead received $46 million in state aid last year when it had expected just $33 million — the district still needs to ask taxpayers to foot the bill for more than $104 million of its $159 million budget each year.

This is important because Riverhead, the only Central School District on the East End, educates more than 5,800 students per year — orders of magnitude greater than many other local school districts. Numerous four and five-story apartment buildings are slated to be built in downtown Riverhead, and the redevelopment of Riverside, a Southampton hamlet across the river that is in the Riverhead school district, will ensure that more students will cram into the halls of its school buildings for years to come. We’ve yet to see serious planning for this eventuality.

Other school districts on the East End range drastically in size, from tiny districts like Wainscott, with 29 students this school year, New Suffolk, with 16 students and Oysterponds, with 65 students, to mid-size schools like Montauk, with 286 students and Bridgehampton with 209 students, and larger schools like Mattituck-Cutchogue, with 1,101 students and Southampton, with 1,471 students.

While many of these local schools may be able to accommodate increased enrollment, issues of overcrowding have become endemic in areas like Springs, which has 668 students and has historically been one of the most affordable areas to live in East Hampton Town.

Many ideas for fixing the inequity in funding for schools have been floated over the years, with consolidation of school districts at the forefront. But this doesn’t fix the physical problem of overcrowding.  

The state has a greater role to play in this space than it ever had in mandating accessory apartments. When decisions about funding of education are left to property owners, it is our children who suffer.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, 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

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