Southold Town has been on a mission this year to do more to address the town’s burgeoning affordable housing crisis, and this issue has become particularly heated in Mattituck, nearly the westernmost hamlet of the town, which is also the site of Southold’s one perpetually affordable housing complex.
In an effort to further the public discussion, the Mattituck-Laurel Civic Association held a forum at the Mattituck American Legion Hall Monday night to discuss aspects of affordable housing ranging from the nuts and bolts of building affordable housing to eligibility requirements, the workforce needs of local businesses and the balancing act between protecting the environment and providing safe housing.
Panelists included Rona Smith of the town’s Housing Advisory Commission, Mattituck Chamber of Commerce President Terry McShane, Mattituck-Cutchogue School Superintendent Anne Smith, Southold Town Government Liaison Officer Denis Noncarrow and Peconic Baykeeper Executive Director Dan Gulizio
Rona Smith started off the discussion with a case study of The Cottages in Mattituck, a 22-house owner-occupied affordable community fostered by the town in 2007.
The Cottages sit on 7.4 acres between Old Sound Avenue and Factory Avenue purchased for $895,000 by a Community Development Agency that oversees them.
The land had been zoned for two-acre lots, meaning that, without special affordable housing zoning, just three houses could have been built there.
Ms. Smith estimated that, between the land cost of $300,000 per lot and construction costs of $250 per square foot for a 2,400-square-foot house, these hypothetical houses would need to be sold for about $900,000 just for a prospective developer to break even.
But, under the town’s Affordable Housing District code, the land cost for each house would be just $40,000. The modest houses, which each have two bedrooms and one bathroom, are about 1,100 square feet, and the developer was able to sell them for around $220,000 apiece.
“That’s the kind of math a developer would do,” she said.
Owners of The Cottages do participate in a trade-off in order to purchase the houses. They can’t build additions and they can’t sell the houses for more than a modest, regulated appreciation on their investment.
In addition, prospective owners needed to make between 80 and 120 percent of the federally-calculated Area Median Income for Nassau/Suffolk of $109,000 for a family of four — quite a bit higher than the Southold Town median income of $84,000. They would also need to be able to get a mortgage and put 20 percent down — about $40,000.
Ms. Smith said that, of the several hundreds of people who signed up for the list for one of the cottages, just 75 were qualified, and only 49 of those chose to participate in the lottery that eventually determined who would get the houses.
Ms. Smith said she believes the project was a success — 22 initial families moved into The Cottages, and five of them have since sold at prices within the town’s affordability guidelines, giving 27 families a foot up into the world of homeownership.
But, she said, the winnowing process proved that there’s an even more urgent need in Southold for “safe rental housing that’s code compliant.”
Mr. Noncarrow said the town’s recent changes to its Affordable Housing Overlay District code are an attempt to make the economics work for potential developers of rental housing. He said the town has more than 100 people currently on its registry of people seeking affordable housing.
Mr. Noncarrow said affordable housing rental guidelines for Southold are $953 per month for a studio apartment, $1,021 for a one bedroom apartment and $1,226 for a two-bedroom apartment.
“This is a tough, tough problem,” he said. “What matters is that people are informed. People are suffering, and it’s the right thing for the government to try to fix it.”
Dr. Anne Smith, from the school, said that anecdotally, she’s heard that parents are having trouble finding rental housing that isn’t a winter rental that ends before school lets out and begins after school starts in the fall.
And, she said, school enrollment statistics also show that families are moving out of the school district.
She said that, when she began working in the school district in 1996, there were 1,285 kids in Kindergarten through 12th grade. In 2004, that number topped out at 1,590 students, but this year it has declined below the level it was at when she began working there — just 1,252 and declining.
Ms. Smith said that 128 kids just graduated this past June, and the incoming 7th Grade class has just 86 kids. This year’s incoming kindergarten class has just 65 kids.
Mr. Gulizio, of the Peconic Baykeeper, pointed out that, while building more intensively does make the numbers work for affordable housing, it can be detrimental to the environment.
“Everything we’re doing on land affects water quality,” he said.
Mr. Gulizio pointed out that the Summerwind building in Riverhead, touted for its 52 affordable apartments, was able to be built due to a $1.9 million grant from the county, an additional $315,000 infrastructure grant and a 10-year 100 percent tax abatement from the town’s Industrial Development Agency.
But then, in addition to those benefits, he said, the town changed its code to allow the apartments in the building to be just 350 square feet, allowing the builders to fit the same number of apartments on three stories instead of four.
Mr. Gulizio said that, while the project is connected to the Riverhead sewage treatment plant, at a density above seven units per acre, you’re loading more pollutants, even with sewage treatment, than in one house connected to a traditional septic system on a one-acre lot.
Since the Summerwind is on just a third of an acre, he said, the 52 housing units (plus the first floor restaurant below the apartments), are contributing far more to the degradation of the environment than development that takes the environment into account.
“If you’re increasing the density, it’s not so great anymore,” he said. “It’s critically important that we have these discussions going forward. If we don’t have clean drinking water, than everything is going to be very affordable.”
Mr. McShane, of the Mattituck Chamber of Commerce, said that small businesses rely on housing being available for their workers.
“It’s a never-ending battle,” he said. “Local money needs to stay in the community or small business is going to go away.”
He added that many businesses in Mattituck have a hard time finding workers who can afford to live here.
“You don’t want to have a guy who lives 45 minutes away selling cheese here,” he said. “He’s miserable from the commute. People are moving away, and we can’t resupply those people.”