Southold Votes To Go Ahead with Housing Fund Referendum; Riverhead Declines

Pictured Above “The Cottages” in Mattituck, a 20-year-old owner-occupied affordable housing complex that has proved to be a rare success in Southold Town’s fight for affordable housing.

Members of the Southold Town Board voted 5-1 Aug. 2 to put a referendum on this November’s ballot on whether to create a Community Housing Fund, paid for through a .5 percent real estate transfer tax, which would be used to fund affordable housing initiatives in town.

In doing so, Southold joins Southampton, East Hampton and Shelter Island towns in committing to put the creation of the new fund before voters this November, but the Riverhead Town Board, at its July 28 work session, officially decided not to go forward with the referendum.

If voters approve the funds this November, each East End town other than Riverhead would create a dedicated fund to be used to fund affordable housing priorities, which could differ in each of the five towns based on housing plans being drafted throughout the East End.

The money could be used for an array of affordable housing goals, from providing first-time homebuyer assistance to building new affordable housing complexes to rehabbing existing housing and providing educational services for new homebuyers.

Southold had been on the fence much of this spring and summer on whether to hold the referendum, a decision that needed to be made in all five East End towns by Aug. 8 in order to notify the Suffolk County Board of Elections of the ballot referendum.

Members of the town board had initially expressed reservations about having a vote before the town completes its housing plan, but they recently hired a consultant to help draft the plan, and hope to have a rough idea of what the plan will contain before the November vote. Board members have also said the town could miss out on as much as $3 million in revenue if it waits until 2023 to hold the referendum.

At a special public hearing Aug. 2, residents who spoke had mixed feelings about the referendum.

Jane Flinter of Mattituck shared stories of distress from her neighbors and friends.

One of her next door neighbors, she said, had difficulty breathing in the middle of the night one night last year, and had to wait for an hour and a half because the Mattituck Fire Department couldn’t raise a crew of EMTs and had to call in help from neighboring districts, while another family, whose well water treatment business has declined as more people sign on to public water, is staying on friends’ couches after a bout of bad luck with their businesses and health.

“Speaking from my emotional side, this bothers me,” she said. “This is a direct result of we don’t have enough affordable housing… That is wrong. This is not the community character my husband and I saw when we moved here 30 years ago.”

David Levy, an attorney from Laurel, said the new fund would take away money that now would be going into the town’s Community Preservation Fund for open space and farmland preservation — the exemption from that tax will be increased concurrently with the creation of the new Housing Funds. He added that he was concerned that other residents would be subsidizing affordable housing if the property taxes of houses sold to affordable homebuyers were lower than the property taxes of market rate homs.

Randy Wade of Greenport said that it’s the volunteer spirit in our local fire department and ambulance corps that keeps our property taxes low, and the town is in danger of loosing the middle and working class backbone of people who live here full time who are willing to volunteer.

“If you really want to see people driven out, make sure we don’t have these volunteer forces,” she said. “I have a friend who needed a home health aid, and she was told they don’t go east of Riverhead.”

Glynnis Berry of Peconic Green Growth suggested the town look at funding accessory apartments, and do a cost-benefit analysis of which programs would be most beneficial here.

“We need to look at water use,” said Ms. Berry, a longtime advocate for water conservation. “We can compensate by not allowing irrigation of lawns or swimming pools.”

“I applaud the work you guys are doing. I think this is incredibly important,” said Richard Vandenburgh, owner of Greenport Harbor Brewing Company. “So there’s no misunderstanding, there is an affordable workforce/family housing crisis. I would attribute it to a house on fire. We need strong leadership steps to put out that fire. This is just one bucket to control this issue. We need to get ahead of it.”

He added that the town should also look to address updating its zoning code to better provide for housing.

Michael Daly of East End YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) said he has just formed a new Political Action Committee to “advocate for a successful referendum in towns that chose to put this Peconic Bay Community Housing Fund on the ballot.”

“I applaud you for making the decision,” he said. “I hope you get the support you need.”

Margaret Steinbugler of Southold, who has been working on a survey for the North Fork Civics umbrella organization of civic associations, said two-thirds of the 1,000 respondents to the survey said affordable housing was “essential or very important.”

“People recognized, townwide, that this is a very big issue,” she said.

Justice Louisa Evans was the one member of the town board to vote “no” on putting the referendum on the ballot.

“I am not against having a half a percent, but I don’t think it should be voted on until people know what the plan is,” she said.

Riverhead Won’t Hold Referendum

Members of the Riverhead Town Board, who have been calling this new fund an increase in the Community Preservation Fund tax (it isn’t an increase in the CPF. It is a separate fund), declined to hold a referendum at their July 28 work session, saying Riverhead already has affordable housing.

“We have an adequate amount of affordable housing in town already,” said Riverhead Community Development Director Dawn Thomas at the work session. “In Riverhead, this is not a crisis issue. Southampton has people living in the woods, which is completely unacceptable.”

Riverhead had initially considered using the fund to help first-time homebuyers.

“That really doesn’t fit for Riverhead,” said Councilman Tim Hubbard. “That fits more for Southampton or out east.”

“The CPF wasn’t designed for all of this,” he added. “Southampton, East Hampton, step up your game. This is meant for you, not us.”

“My concern is, what’s going to be next for the CPF,” he added. “What are they going to tack on? We’ve added water to it, but let’s not keep digging at this. This was designed with a specific tax in mind, and that’s just not happening.”

“Water quality and land preservation were the initial intent (of the Community Preservation Fund),” said Councilman Frank Beyrodt, adding that increasing the 2 percent CPF transfer tax to 2.5 percent including the new fund “could be an impediment to somebody buying their first house.

Councilman Bob Kern agreed, saying other East End towns should do more.

“Especially in Southampton, they’re passionate, progressive people. You’d think they’d care about the people in their community,” he said, adding that Southampton recently had $600 million in real estate transfers (the total value of the transfers, not the amount of money going into the CPF. “They have all this CPF money. Why do they need a bill?”

“It wasn’t the intended purpose (of the CPF),” said Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar. “If it’s not going to help us personally and help young professionals, which is what we want to attract here, I agree, we shouldn’t move forward.”

Ms. Aguiar said that work session conversation was the end of the board’s discussion on the Community Housing Fund, and Riverhead will not move forward with placing it on the ballot.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, 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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