It’s been a long time since any affordable housing has gotten off the ground in Southold Town, due in large part to a toxic combination of the high cost of land and opposition to projects that could change the rural nature of the town.
Members of the town’s Housing Advisory Commission are asking the Southold Town Board to draft code changes to allow more density for small-scale affordable housing developments of up to 24 units.
Housing Advisory Commission member Rona Smith appealed for the zoning changes at the town board’s March 8 work session.
“I’m here to support the idea of increased density,” she said. “Affordable housing developers can’t afford to build here because the cost of land is so high. You could limit developments to no more than 25 units, and the housing has to be affordable in perpetuity. We almost have to see increased density to serve the population who lives here full-time.”
The town board agreed to take up the discussion of a code change at their next work session March 22.
Town Supervisor Scott Russell said he’s met with builders who specialize in affordable housing when the town has requested proposals in recent years, and builders said they can’t justify their cost of construction at anything less than six units per acre, and are unlikely to pursue projects that are less than 12 units per acre.
Mr. Russell said he’d support a 24-unit cap on the number of houses that can be built in a development, and the town could require that such a development be tied into a Baby BESST or other mid-size sewage treatment system.
“If we’re serious about creating affordable housing, we can build 20 to 25 units on two to three acres of land,” he said. “Nobody’s going to accept 40 to 50 units. It’s never going to fly. But with 18 to 22, maybe we’ll have a little bit more public buy-in.”
Mr. Russell said he was impressed with Southampton Town’s design for the 28-unit Sandy Hollow Cove affordable housing complex in Tuckahoe, designed to look like farm outbuildings.
“It’s beautiful. It’s completely consistent with the architectural goals of the hamlets,” said Mr. Russell, adding that Southold could add language in the code change about acceptable architectural styles.
The Sandy Hollow Cove development was mired in controversy for years before it was approved, and was the subject of a lawsuit after the Southampton Town Board voted unanimously to approve it in 2014.
Ms. Smith said that one unique problem with affordable housing in Southold is that income guidelines are based on the regional median income in both Suffolk and Nassau counties, which is $98,000 for a family of four.
In Southold, she said, the median income for a family of four is $65,000, and even the Cottages at Mattituck, the town’s one affordable housing development, were priced too high for many low income families here.
Mr. Russell said he believes Southold should set a concrete goal for the amount of affordable housing units the town plans to build, perhaps of 50 units in three years.
“At least we’d have a benchmark. It could be any number you pick. Then people can judge me three years from now on how I’ve done,” he said.
“That’s 40 more than we’ve had in years,” said Councilman Bob Ghosio.
Mr. Ghosio added that he’d like to see the town continue to pursue an ongoing study of how to incorporate more affordable housing into existing hamlet centers, perhaps in buildings that are currently being used for retail.
Ms. Smith and Councilman Jim Dinizio, who serves as the town board liaison to the housing commission, said three members of the 10-member commission have resigned, and they’re considering cutting the commission membership to just seven people.
“We need people with solid backgrounds in relevant areas who are active and have time to participate,” said Ms. Smith. “Many people do not attend meetings regularly.”
Mr. Russell said he believes it’s hard for members of the commission to maintain their enthusiasm when none of their ideas come to fruition.
“They feel like they’re banging their heads against the wall,” agreed Mr. Dinizio.
“People will come back if we start making amendments to the code,” said Mr. Russell. “Some of these people will feel reinvigorated by the process.”
The housing discussion came on the heel of a morning-long discussion on solid waste management issues ranging from combining solid waste sites on Fishers Island to updating the town’s waste management plan.
Mr. Russell jokingly dubbed the work session “Solid Waste Day.”
“I hope this doesn’t fit in that category,” said Ms. Smith of affordable housing.