The Southold Town Board voted unanimously Oct. 10 to adopt its Community Housing Plan, the first step toward providing financial help toward residents looking to stay on the North Fork in the midst of a dire affordable housing crisis.
The board also voted 4 to 2 to ask Town Supervisor Scott Russell to send a duty statement for a Community Housing administrator to the New York State Civil Service Commission for feedback on how to structure a position for someone to administer the program. Mr. Russell and Councilwoman Louisa Evans voted agains the measure, saying they don’t think the town should hire someone to administer a program that doesn’t yet exist.
“At the request of the board, I’ll submit it to Civil Service,” said Mr. Russell, adding that he was casting a “strongly worded ‘no.'”
“This is trying to hire someone to administer a program that doesn’t exist or help us create a program, which isn’t their job. It’s ours,” said Mr. Russell.
“I’m elated,” said Town Councilwoman Jill Doherty, the town board liaison to the volunteer committed that worked to draft the plan, after it was adopted. “It’s a true community plan made by stakeholders in the community.”
The Community Housing Plan, in the works now for a year, sets guidelines for how the town should spend a half-percent real estate transfer tax, the Community Housing Fund, approved by 59 percent of Southold voters in a public ballot referendum last year.
The plan, online here, calls for four methods of addressing the need for housing: Increasing the stock of year-round housing, maintaining existing housing, helping first-time homebuyers with down payments and providing education and counseling services.
Ms. Doherty said submitting the job description for a Community Housing Fund administrator to Civil Service for their feedback on how it would fit into existing civil service job descriptions “is a process this will probably take about five months. It doesn’t mean that just because we put a duty statement in we will hire someone next week. The next administration is going to deal with this.”
Mr. Russell is not seeking re-election this fall, and Ms. Doherty is running for re-election to her seat on the town council. Both are Republicans.
While the position was not funded in Mr. Russell’s proposed 2024 town budget, Ms. Doherty said it could be funded in the future with a combination of general funds and money from the town’s existing fund for its “inclusionary zoning” buy-out provision, which currently contains $1 million, mostly from money contributed by the Harvest Pointe condominium complex in Cutchogue, which paid into that fund instead of building affordable units in their development, and from the new Community Housing Fund, which will hold the money collected by Suffolk County through the half-percent real estate transfer tax.
The Suffolk County Comptroller’s office is currently setting up a system to transfer those funds to the town, similar to its administration of the existing Community Preservation Fund for farmland and open space preservation.
While public comment at the first public hearing on the plan Sept. 26 was mostly positive, the most critical commenter, David Levy, was the only person who spoke at the continuation of the public hearing on Oct. 10. He again asked the board to nail down some administrative details prior to adopting the plan, including how to handle a situation in which someone who initially qualifies for affordable rental housing would transition out of affordable housing if their income increases.
Ms. Doherty said at the hearing that she believes those details will be worked out by the person the town hires to administer the plan. She later added that having a mix of income levels in a rental complex is a positive for community-building.
“One way to solve this is to let people stay there. You may have someone who was able to grow in their careers,” she said. “Having the upper middle class and people just scraping by in the same community — that’s not segregating a community.”
Councilman Greg Doroski, a Democrat in his first term on the board whose full-time job is as the Innovations Director at the Greenport Harbor Brewing Company, said one of the brewery’s employees gave his notice to leave his job just this week because “he’s moving away because he can’t afford to live here.”
“There’s some urgency here,” he said. “We feel we’re at a point where we’ve answered enough of these questions that we can move forward to implementation.”
He added that the plan includes many provisions, including first-time homebuyer loans, which could be set up very quickly in order to help residents as soon as possible.
Ms. Doherty agreed.
“They can stack these assistance programs,” she said of prospective homebuyers, adding that the plan recommends the town cap their loans at $20,000 but other non-profit and county programs can also provide help, including the county’s Long Island Homes for Heroes program, which provides grants to much-needed volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians.
Ms. Doherty added that Southold’s zoning code already allows residents to build affordable accessory apartments, apartments above stores and employee housing, and that the committee that drafted the plan had a lot of innovative ideas for preserving the town’s existing housing stock, including maintenance grants to keep existing houses in good repair.
A new state program also provides financial assistance to homeowners looking to build such units.
The plan, she said, focuses on these types of homegrown solutions, rather than rental housing complexes, which have proved controversial wherever they are proposed, and which also require major septic improvements in an area where nearly all housing outside of the Village of Greenport relies on individual septic systems rather than sewers.
Fishers Island Town Justice and Councilwoman Louisa Evans joined Mr. Russell in his vote to not send the housing administrator job description to the Civil Service Commission.
“We should really suss out what we think are the important areas of the plan, so when we have a housing director, that’s what their duties are,” she said, though she did say the overall plan “gives us the tools to develop community housing. The town board needs to look at which [tools] we give priority to and develop the tools and put in rules.”
Mr. Russell thanked community members who worked on the plan, but said he would have liked to see more concrete steps outlined before hiring someone to administer it.
“If we were in a hurry to get things done, let’s vote on the North Fork Villas,” he said of a controversial proposal for a 36-unit rental complex on the Main Road in Cutchogue. “I vote no, right now.”
“We need to bring in an expert to help craft these programs,” said Councilman Doroski. “I’ve heard board members say ‘wait until January, with the new administration, but that is a luxury we do not have right now.”