Pictured Above: The proposed site of Cutchogue Woods on Route 48 in Cutchogue.
A workforce housing complex in Greenport that faced a botched lottery two years ago has come back to haunt efforts to build affordable housing on the North Fork.
Rona Smith, a longtime housing advocate and leader in the Southold Town Housing Advisory Commission, is proposing to build 24 units of affordable housing on six acres of property she recently purchased on Route 48 in Cutchogue.
And not far away, on Depot Lane, also in Cutchogue, another proposal to build affordable housing on the site of the former Knights of Columbus hall is back before the Southold Town Board this month, with developers paring back their proposal from 16 to 12 units.
Ms. Smith told the Southold Town Board at its Feb. 1 work session that the homes in her proposal would be prefabricated rental units, to limit the disturbance to trees on the property, and would be in the style of townhouses finished by workforce housing developer Georgica Green Ventures, which has built several affordable housing complexes on the South Fork, including Speonk Commons in Speonk and Gansett Meadow in Amagansett, and the 116-unit Riverview Lofts in Riverhead.
But the 50-unit Vineyard View project finished in 2020 on Route 48 in Greenport has proved a cautionary tale for the way local public perception of affordable housing can quickly change for the worse.
The developers of that property, Conifer Real Estate Development, had to redo their lottery for housing units after a batch of applicants was left out of the original lottery, and in the process of redoing the lottery, they advertised broadly.
In the end, Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell told attendees at the Feb. 1 work session, just 23 percent of people who won in the final lottery were Southold residents at the time they won.
“It’s very hard for me to tell this community of residents who are dying for affordable housing that, I’m sorry, we’re going to build this, but I can’t guarantee you’re going to get it,” he said. “With all due respect to the people of Wheatley Heights, I do not owe their families a place to rent.”
“If we don’t build it at all, there’s zero chance of people in the community getting a spot,” countered Councilwoman Sarah Nappa. “The people who came to live in Vineyard View are now working in this community. That’s good economic development.”
Ms. Smith, who with Georgica Green is working to get federal, state and county grants for her project, said the use of these funds would require her to adhere to the Fair Housing Act rules requiring affordable housing lotteries to be open to the public at large, as has been established through recent litigation that has reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
“You can’t build a wall to keep people out,” she said. “There’s a certain amount of reality in the fact that this is funded by taxpayer funding, not so much Southold taxpayer money. I know that sounds a little bit adversarial.”
She added that Georgica Green has a good track record of attracting local residents to their developments, with an average 75 percent local residents receiving housing through their lotteries.
“There has never been an imbalance like that in any of (Georgica Green’s) developments,” she said. “There is some sense that Conifer’s development reached out a bit further and more aggressively further west.”
While Ms. Smith’s property, just west of Alvah’s Lane on a wooded property on the south side of Route 48, is not adjacent to any downtowns or public transit, as has been the recent desired model for affordable housing, Ms. Smith told the board such scenarios are not easy to come by on the North Fork.
These areas, known as Hamlet Locus, or HALO zones, are among the places where the town board looks favorably on creating Affordable Housing Overlay Districts. Such a district would have to be created by the town board for Ms. Smith’s project to proceed.
Ms. Smith, who has established a corporation called Housing Initiatives, LLC, purchased the property for $685,000 in a transaction that closed on Jan. 5, 2022, according to real estate transfer records.
“One of the things we have faced for years now is there isn’t land in HALO zones to create any substantial development,” said Ms. Smith. “Even if you lived in a HALO zone in Cutchogue, you might work in Mattituck or Riverhead. Almost any job here requires transportation.”
“When I look at the HALO zone of Cutchogue, there’s nothing really in the HALO zone that could support this,” agreed Councilman Greg Doroski.
Ms. Smith said the government funding requires the project tailor its apartments to be rented to people in certain income brackets, based on the Area Median Income (AMI) for both Nassau and Suffolk counties. The AMI for both counties together is $128,000 per year, she said, while the AMI in Southold Town alone is closer to $85,000.
As currently conceived, the project would have 18 units aimed at people making 60 percent of the AMI for Nassau/Suffolk, 4 units for people making 90 percent and 2 units at 110 percent, said David Gallo, President of Georgica Green Ventures.
“We really can’t adjust more than a unit here or there,” he said. “It’s not us as the developer that wants to do this. There are financing constraints with the program…. Every time we shift a unit above the 60 percent rent tier, we’re losing a federal tax credit…. We will definitely work toward creating the AMI mix the town is looking to achieve. If we’re hitting a barrier, it’s not because we don’t want to go there, but because we can’t make the numbers work.”
Ms. Smith added that, because the AMI in Southold is so much lower than the Nassau/Suffolk AMI, the 60 percent units are actually targeting people who make about 100 percent of Southold’s Area Median Income.
Mr. Gallo added that his firm will abide by Fair Housing guidelines, and will also emphasize local marketing to make sure the community knows about the project.
“We really want the local community to be aware of it, and that’s been the outcome we’ve had in the past,” he said. “We’re proud of it.”
Mr. Russell was unimpressed.
“I have a real reluctance getting behind this. I’ve heard all of this before,” he said, adding that developers that have the money to finance the projects themselves can restrict who can live there. “We need to focus on people who can self-fund. I would say self-funded is definitely the preferred option. I need more than sales pitches. We’ve been through this.”
“I agree with you that self-funded is preferred, but we have a real need in this community,” said Mr. Doroski. “There is an affordable housing crisis… The one resounding concern from the business community (in a recent survey), which cuts across all sectors, is labor. There is no place for people to live in this community. You can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Councilman Brian Mealy, who was quiet for much of the conversation, thanked Ms. Smith for the work she did to shepherd the 22-unit The Cottages at Mattituck project to fruition in 2007.
“I think the Mattituck cottages is a monument to your work to fix the problem of attainable housing,” he said. “Because of that, I’m walking out on faith to meet you, to say I see you and I appreciate you. We have to have more options, not less. I also want to welcome the people of Vineyard View. They are a part of our community. We’re trying to make sure all folks in need of housing get housing.”
On Feb. 15, the Southold Town Board heard another proposal for affordable housing in Cutchogue that would require the board establish an Affordable Housing Overlay District.
The development, on the two-acre site of the former Knights of Columbus Hall which is currently owned by North Fork Community Club, LLC, was initially turned down by the Southold Town Board in November of 2020.
The project would include eight 800-square-foot apartments and four 600-square foot apartments.
After hearing Ms. Smith’s proposal two weeks prior, board members looked favorably on the fact that the Depot Lane project was not being built with any grant funding.
“Our thought was, we would have housing for volunteer firemen, EMTs and people stuck with their parents because they couldn’t afford an apartment,” said attorney William Goggins, representing the applicant. “We want to help this class of people in our community that seem to need a little help, and they’re not getting it.”
“We’re not going to do this with public money. If we do, we’d have to open it up to everyone in the state,” he added. “We believe this is a great location for it — you can walk to town. It’s close to the post office, retail and shopping.”
He added that the applicants would either install a Hydroaction nitrogen-reducing septic system or a cesspool field depending on which is required by the Suffolk County Health Department.
Councilwoman Jill Doherty told the town board, which has two new members — Mr. Mealy and Mr. Doroski — since the project was originally proposed, that the board had told the applicants they’d consider the project if it was pared back to 12 apartments.
Mr. Doroski said he would like to hear more about the income targets for the units, and to have more clarity on whether Fair Housing Act guidelines would be violated if they prioritized Southold Town residents.
“My concern is this is a diverse community, and the process you’re using could be exclusionary. I want to make sure it reflects the community,” said Mr. Mealy.
“I will. I’m very aware of that, and I appreciate you bringing it up,” said Mr. Goggins.