Pictured Above: David Levy addressed the Town Board.

When an overflow crowd spilled into the Southold Town Board meeting room Tuesday evening and the only public hearing on the agenda was on the town’s Community Housing Plan, board members anticipated a contentious evening.

What they got instead was a series of thoughtful comments and encouragement from the community.

East End Towns whose voters agreed last November to enact a .5 percent real estate transfer tax to fund community housing must create these plans to guide how that funding is spent.

Southold’s plan, online here, calls for the town to use the funding to provide low interest loans for construction of housing and accessory apartments, along with low-interest down payment assistance loans for first time homebuyers, and no-interest down payment assistance loans for first-time homebuyers who are first responders, members of the military and health care workers.

The town is also prioritizing maintenance grants to help keep existing housing in good repair and mae it more energy efficient.

Town Planner Mara Cerezo, who drafted the plan with the town’s Community Housing Fund Advisory Board and its town board liaison, Councilwoman Jill Doherty, gave an overview of the need for community housing here — there are 600 people on the town’s housing registry, she said, and 47 percent of renters and 34 percent of homeowners are spending more than 30 percent of their income on their homes.

Oysterponds Elementary School Teacher Veronica Stelzer, who lives in Mattituck, came to the podium with tears in her eyes.

Veronica Stelzer

“Listen up. I need a house,” she said. “I grew up in Mattituck. It’s been great living with my dad up until the age of 29, but I need a house. I’m not looking to rent. I’m looking to buy. I’m looking to build equity. I make a decent living, and I’m looking to buy a house and I’m completely priced out.”

Ms. Stelzer said she thought she had a deal to buy a cottage in The Cottages in Mattituck, an ownership-based affordable housing community built about 20 years ago, but “I got cashed out and somebody beat me to it, because they had more than me.”

“I’m so grateful for this plan,” she said. “I hope you can keep the charaacter of our community. Not all of us want to be in an apartment or a condo. We want to do just like our parents did, and raise our families too.”

“I don’t think there’s one person in this room that isn’t behind you,” said Town Supervisor Scott Russell.

David Levy of Laurel urged the town to develop guidelines for an asset test for people who may meet the income requirements but have substantial assets. He also asked how the town planned to administer the program if residents of community housing’s income goes up.

“If someone is no longer qualified and they don’t want to move, what do you do?” he asked.

“Part of the implementation [of the plan] would be to detail this. Further decisions and details have to be made by the town board,” said Ms. Doherty. “It’s something we have to work out. We could make it more [income] diverse housing. There are different things we can do.”

Councilman Greg Doroski pointed out that much of the town’s plan focuses on incentivizing home ownership through down payment assistance loans, which wouldn’t involve an income threshold.

Mr. Levy, who said he thought he’d read in the plan that it would be able to “buy people houses of up to $1.2 million” when the transfer tax is expected to bring in about $1 million per year.

Another commenter, Rosemary McKinley, said she thought the plan allowed people up to $2 million in assistance to buy a home.

“The town is not buying people houses,” said Ms. Doherty. “Our goal is to help as many people as we can.

Anne Smith spoke on behalf of the town’s Housing Advisory Commission, of which she is a member (She’s also a candidate on the Democratic ticket for Town Board this fall).

“This is not the only solution to a complex issue, but it will serve as a guide,” she said, adding that the plan is designed to be reviewed and revised as the town develops the program.

“I think the town needs to be land banking so [affordable housing] developers won’t be looking at the cheapest land,” said Randy Wade of Greenport. “Then, 10 years ago, when we have great public transportation, these areas will be nodes.”

Ms. Wade urged the board to hire someone with professional housing development experience to run the program.

George Cork Maul of New Suffolk, speaking on behalf of the North Fork Civics, a consortium of civic associations throughout the town, said the Civics enthusiastically support adoption of the plan, and also urged the board to fund a new housing administrator position in the town’s 2024 budget.

Mattituck attorney Stephen Kiely, who serves as the Shelter Island Town Attorney and is currently running on the Republican ticket for Southold Town Board, said he believes the plan should also “incentivize small business owners to construct apartments above or within their businesses.”

“I do feel for-profit developers should not be eligible for loans,” he said. He added that Shelter Island has purchased land and built manor homes, rental housing with a few small units that look like a single-family home.

Anne Murray of East Marion urged the board to ensure housing that benefits from the fund be affordable in perpetuity.

“Mixed income and intergenerational housing are extremely important,” she added. “The community has changed so much.”

Greenport resident Bridget Elkin urged the board to update the housing market statistics in the plan, which were from 2020, because “the situation has gotten much worse” in terms of rental prices.

“I don’t think anyone is renting for $1,500 a month anymore,” she said. “It’s much higher.”

She also said that, while she’s in favor of curbing short-term rentals, she doesn’t think it would have any impact on affordable housing.

“People who are renting their home for $40,00 to $50,000 for the season are not going to turn around and service the affordable housing market,” she said. “I really think you’re going to address this problem with building affordable housing. I don’t think you’re going to see homes returned to affordable housing.”

Ms. Doherty said the town’s regulations will require recipients of funding and renters to live in their home year round.

The board unanimously agreed to hold the public hearing open to its Oct. 10 meeting at 7 p.m.

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

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