Community Housing Funds are soon to be created in four East End towns, after months of handwringing among elected officials about whether the public would approve of funding affordable housing through a real estate transfer tax.
This might not be the right year, they worried, as inflation and energy prices soared and public sentiment about new taxes was pretty clear — the memo across the political spectrum this election year was to avoid mentioning possible tax increases.
But these funds, which would receive their income through a half-percent real estate transfer tax paid by buyers of new higher-end homes here, received a good deal of public support on Election Day, most overwhelmingly in East Hampton, where more than 68 percent of voters said they approved of the proposal. In Southampton, 53 percent of voters said yes, while in Southold, which was on the fence about even putting the measure on the ballot, nearly 59 percent of voters said yes. On Shelter Island, with fewer than 2,000 ballots cast, the measure passed by a squeaker of just 15 votes.
Voters here understand the dire need for affordable housing, because it impacts all of our lives. When schools can’t find teachers, hospitals can’t find staff and restaurants begin to shutter their doors several days a week because they can’t find workers willing to commute or able to afford to buy a house here, it’s clear to everyone that our communities are broken.
There are some who will say that the horse has already left the barn on affordable housing — countless people have given up trying to make a go of it here in recent years, packing up shop for North Carolina or New Mexico or Florida or the wilds of the Maine woods, where just maybe the increasing cost of living won’t outpace their earning potential or their retirement savings. But many young people who have moved away, leaving their parents behind, are still hoping for a way back — finding them a path will include both better housing and better employment options here.
Local governments should be emboldened by the message they received at the polls on Nov. 8, but that won’t stop many people from continuing to rail against any housing proposal that crops up in their backyard.
But when one Southampton business owner urged the town to allow a complex for veterans and people with mental health needs next door to his business in order to clean up a homeless tent encampment there, we knew something had fundamentally shifted in this debate. We can all see the clear need.
One of the most exciting elements of the Community Housing Fund is the broad array of innovative programs towns can pursue, from helping to keep existing affordable homes in good repair to renovations allowing people to convert houses back to multi-family use to encouraging safe accessory apartments that are affordable for a homeowner to build, as well as for the potential tenant of that space. This kind of repurposing of existing housing will be necessary to meet the need without building too many large housing projects all over the East End.
Equally important will be solutions that are able to become self-sustaining, such as first-time homebuyer loans that can be paid back or forgiven, depending on the homeowner’s circumstances, and housing complexes that provide rental income that can be used to finance more affordable housing, like Southampton is hoping to do with the redevelopment of its Bridgehampton Senior Center with 16 new rental apartments.
Management of these types of programs takes resources, and while Southampton and East Hampton already have Housing Authorities that are adept at handling the nuances of these programs, we hope Southold and Shelter Island lean on the expertise of those South Fork agencies in deciding how best to manage their Community Housing Funds.
Many developers of housing complexes guarantee the housing will remain affordable for a certain amount of time set by government agencies, either federal or state, that help finance the construction of those complexes. We urge local governments here to craft restrictions that ensure these complexes remain affordable in perpetuity. Fifty years might seem like a long time right now, but it goes by quickly.
Access to housing is a multi-generational issue, and its one that defines the character of our communities. We are still working to overcome the segregatory scars of the redlining of a century ago, which has damaged the stability of families across this country.
We have our housing funds and we have the tools to succeed at this effort. Now we need to make sure the funds and tools are fairly distributed to all who need help here.