On June 1, Southampton Town gained a new voice for affordable housing when Diana Weir joined the town’s staff as Director of Housing. A Wainscott resident and former East Hampton Town Board member who worked for 10 years for the Long Island Housing Partnership, she left her most recent job as Brookhaven Town’s Commissioner of Housing and Human Services to tackle housing issues closer to home. We caught up with Ms. Weir in her office in the basement of town hall in mid-June to discuss her thoughts after a week-and-a-half on the job.
East End Beacon: How did you end up in Southampton?
Diana Weir: I was the Commissioner of Housing in Brookhaven. I had retired after the Long Island Housing Partnership, but Ed Romaine had won a special election in Brookhaven. He asked would I come and help and I did. I was very happy there. It was a very big town, very exciting, with lots of things going on, a little densely populated on the western end but toward the east it was pine barrens and little more relaxed.
I was there for about five years when I got the call from Jay [Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman]. He said would you be interested? I know Jay. I love Jay. He’s a very wonderful person, a good young man, and this is so much closer to home. I’ve lived 30 years on the East End, it is kind of home. I know a lot of people and I’m very excited.
I see a lot of things that have potential and hopefully, with the community’s help and the town board, we can do things to make it more comfortable for people to stay here. Right now, the cost of living, the cost of property, the taxes, PSEG bills, makes it very hard for people to want to live and work here. We’re losing young people. Seniors are able to stay because their house was purchased many years ago. But the island in general is coming to the realization that things have to be done to help working people live closer to where they work and be able to raise their kids.
EEB: It’s really an island-wide problem.
DW: Families that were here for so long are moving away. Farmland is being gobbled up. I’ve been here a few weeks now and done some research. The town has done quite a bit. They’ve done some 72H property, which the town gets for tax default from Suffolk County, they’ve just ratified two new developments that are rental properties — one in in Tuckahoe, Sandy Hollow Cove, and the one in Speonk by the train station. Rentals are a tremendous need for people to be able to afford to live. I commend the board — Republicans, Democrats, Independents — everybody worked together and bit the bullet.
EEB: It was really interesting to see the community come around to the Speonk project.
DW: Yes, you know once something is built, it’s never a problem. The misconception here is that we’re going to build public housing that’s going to be inundated by these ‘foreigners’ coming. It’s never like that. First of all, we’re far away from everything, so people from New York and Queens are not gonna move out here to get an affordable apartment so they can work back somewhere else. But that’s the misconception that people use when they’re afraid of something: their property values are going to drop or people that I don’t know or want are going to come and live in this community. It never happens. It’s always local people that end up getting these homes, and then people forget about it until you mention the next one.
EEB: In Southold when they talk about this, people always bring up the lawsuit in Oyster Bay about not being able to restrict who can have the housing.
DW: You cannot restrict housing because it is against the Fair Housing Act and it really is not appropriate. Towns have to be very careful with that, if they start to say we don’t want this, uh oh, now you’re trying to keep ‘those people out.’ It’s a market-based thing. People are not going to travel from somewhere else to get a cheap rent because where are they going to work? I was involved in that Oyster Bay lawsuit. I assisted the town. They’re such a non-integrated community, which is part of the problem.
EEB: Long Island is very segregated.
DW: It is one of most segregated communities. It started with Levittown. It said in the deeds that no blacks were allowed. But I think people aren’t that much that way anymore. When you have a lot of opposition, you notice it’s really a few people, not really a crowd or a swell of people with pitchforks saying ‘we don’t want these people.’ I think Southampton has done a good job. I did a lot of work here with the Long Island Housing Partnership. We built the Bridgehampton Mews — the manor homes on the Bridgehampton Turnpike. Our goal many years ago was to make it fit into the community.
EEB: You don’t even notice it now.
DW: Prejudices people have are not just about people. Everything here is about the vista. It’s a wonderful vista here when there are no people or you are not able to maintain a community because you’re not able to keep the workforce. Who’s going to come and paint your house and mow your lawn and do your repairs and put on a new roof? Everybody can’t travel from somewhere else. That’s why we have all the traffic on the road. You really have to have an open mind and an open heart.
EEB: How would Jay Schneiderman’s proposal for accessory apartments work?
DW: The accessary apartments are there already illegally. The thought is to bring them up to code and allow them spread throughout the town so they’re not in one specific hamlet. Because we have such a diametrically opposed housing stock, it’s difficult to put that housing in some of the high-end areas.
The code has not been presented yet, but believe me, it will be talked about ad nauseam. I think this town board is really looking to solve some of those issues in a fair and positive manner. The homeowner will be required to live there, in the house or in the accessory apartment…If the homeowner is invested, they’re not going to let it be run down. It’s a multifaceted benefit for the community.
I’m a senior. If I had a legal accessory apartment, I might move into the apartment and rent my house. That would supplement my Social Security and let me live comfortably. I could travel. Maybe a lot of seniors want to do that. The town has done as much as its been able to, with opposition, money, town codes and the property costs out here. The land is precious.
The Community Preservation Fund is a wonderful thing because it helped preserve our town, but there’s always the other side of the sword. It made property values so extremely high.
EEB: Would you support a transfer tax for affordable housing?
DW: This is my opinion only, but we are going to run out of land. Right now we can use the CPF for water quality and that’s wonderful, but why not a half a percent for affordable housing? You guys created this issue by making land values go so high. We preserved farms. It’s wonderful. We preserved the aquifer. Everybody agrees with that. But this is more controversial. If we put affordable housing everywhere, then people think their property taxes will go up. But again, that is above my pay grade.
EEB: From what we’ve seen, many schools are shrinking here.
DW: All over Long Island they’re shrinking. The school population over the last 10 to 15 years has decreased 10 to 15 percent throughout Long Island. Some areas experience increases, because of immigrants, but they have a right to be educated. The issue here, in my opinion only, is that school districts should be consolidated.
EEB: The way we pay for schools is a social injustice.
DW: The biggest injustice is the school system. You have schools in Brookhaven where one grammar school has 2,200 kids. East Hampton has five grammar schools, some with a handful of kids. That’s something that’s above our pay grade. Politicians at the state level won’t touch it.
EEB: It seems affordable housing is much more contentious in Southampton than East Hampton. Have you found that to be the case?
DW: East Hampton has done a lot. It’s a much smaller community, one-third the size of Southampton. The only opposition I remember was when we were trying to do the Green Hollow, we wanted to build 66 homes there, which was consistent with the community. I think that was more political, after we left the new board built it with fewer units, which is fine. At least they built something.
EEB: How does your role relate to the Southampton Housing Authority?
DW: The housing authority’s role is for publicly owned property, which is then used as rentals for low income families. They also monitor Section 8 vouchers, and Community Development Block Grants. I’m looking at expanding the possibilities of what we can do with those funds. That’s where my knowledge comes in. There are a lot of things that Community Development Block Grants can be used for.
EEB: Doesn’t Southampton’s Comprehensive Plan call for thousands of affordable apartments?
DW: We will never reach that goal of what is actually needed, but we just have to chip away at it, and make it happen.
EEB: It seems NIMBYism — people who don’t want affordable housing in their backyards — has died down a little in Southampton in the past year or so. Have you noticed that?
DW: Maybe a tad. When your family starts to leave, when your kids cant buy a house, you start to understand. The first thing I do when I go into a community meeting is say ‘how many of you people could buy your house today?’ I couldn’t buy my house today. It’s just impossible. You won the lottery because you moved here 30 years ago and now you don’t want other people to move in near you? It’s about fair and equal treatment. The average price in Southampton is around $900,000. That’s very skewed. It’s out of control and it’s been out of control for years.