With the onset of summer around here, everything bureaucratic moves a little slower, as local governments deal with the pressing issues of high season — traffic, noise, events and the inevitable increase in demand for public safety and emergency response when our population swells thanks to our access to the beach.
Just on the other side of the upcoming summer season is a mad dash to Election Day, when voters will make their voices heard on a measure that could go a long way to protecting the fabric of our community in the years ahead.
Southampton, East Hampton and Shelter Island towns are all poised to put a referendum on a proposed new Community Housing Fund .5 percent real estate transfer tax on the Nov. 8 ballot, while Southold and Riverhead towns may wait until 2023 or, in the case of Riverhead, perhaps forego this opportunity (see story page 1).
Each of the five towns on the East End faces unique housing challenges, and that’s why it is so important that each of these funds be tailored to the needs of the community it is meant to serve. That is why the state enabling legislation was drawn up to require each town to draft its own plan.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen some concern from town leaders over changes to the Community Preservation Fund land preservation program that are occurring concurrently to the new program. In Southampton, East Hampton and Shelter Island towns, the first $250,000 of a home purchase is currently exempt from the 2 percent CPF real estate transfer tax, which is paid by homebuyers. That amount will be upped this year to $400,000 regardless of whether towns commit to the new Community Housing Fund program. Likewise, in Riverhead and Southold, the exemption will rise from $150,000 to $200,000.
When the Riverhead Town Board last discussed the housing fund program in late March, they asked for more information on how the increased exemption would negatively impact Riverhead’s CPF fund. But this question is somewhat moot — the CPF exemption increase is not tied to this November’s vote. And an increase of $50,000 in the exemption would mean people struggling to afford a starter home would have to come up with $1,000 less at closing, a benefit to the community at large that is offset by the transfer tax paid by people buying at the high end of the market.
Indeed, some of the strangest opposition we’ve heard has come from neighborhoods at the high end of the market — according to Southold Councilwoman Louisa Evans, residents of Fishers Island — an enclave home to many exclusive estates — want to opt out of the referendum because they believe there’s nothing in it for them.
Southold Town is really not far behind the South Fork in facing ballooning real estate prices and the inevitable trade parade of workers making their way east down narrow highways every morning to get to work. The “trade parade” is really a misnomer at this point, anyway. For years now, it hasn’t been just people in the trades making this commute every day. Of late, on both forks, this commute is being made by people doing just about any kind of job that can’t be done from home.
We’ve been hearing for years about the need for volunteer firefighters, EMTs, teachers and nurses on the East End, and about how the lack of housing for people just starting out in their careers has drained the community of people who serve these essential functions. While all this is true, the reality is much more stark. Area median incomes, which are used to calculate eligibility for affordable housing, are now upwards of six figures here. It was telling to hear Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman recently discuss his own difficulty finding housing he could afford on a town supervisor’s salary when he served as East Hampton Town Supervisor 20 years ago. And things haven’t gotten better. When our town leaders can’t afford to live here, something is truly broken.
We’ve heard a lot of great, innovative suggestions for community housing as towns began to put together their housing plans in recent weeks, and one of the things that’s truly great about them is that they’re tailored to meet the needs of the communities they serve, from allowing homeowners to sell “affordability easements” on their properties in East Hampton — allowing them to stay in their home while taking advantage of the equity and ensuring that it stays affordable when they sell, to partnering with Habitat for Humanity in Riverhead to rehab blighted vacant homes downtown. Southampton even seems to be coming around to the idea of multi-family housing, a major shift in mindset in a community that has long had a shadow inventory of illegal affordable apartments. The crisis has reached a point where there is little stigma left for building such apartments to provide homes for our parents, children and neighbors, who all have been affected by the lack of housing here. It’s long past time to find a way to make these apartments legal and safe, without penalizing people who are trying to do the right thing, even if it means breaking the laws that are on the books now. It is time for all of this to change.