The Affordable Housing Crisis: Can It Be Fixed?
Everyone agrees there is a need for more affordable housing on the east end of Long Island.
The Town of Southampton, NY, population 60,000, is a case in point. Comprised of seven villages, including the second priciest zip code in the U.S., it is a place where middle class homes in middle class neighborhoods are regularly knocked down and replaced by McMansions. The average home costs well over $1 million, and monthly rents average $1,700.
Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, who was elected in 2016, is making it his mission to find affordable housing opportunities within the town but acknowledges it is an uphill battle.
“When I first came in as supervisor, I asked for the inventory of affordable rental units…and there was no inventory,” he said. “There was not a single unit that anybody could show me. That was a real problem.
“Now we have a number of units that are happening,” he added.
What is affordable housing?
Everyone has their own idea of what affordable housing is.
For some, it may mean Section 8, a program put in place by the federal government in 1974 to provide financial assistance to people struggling to pay rent.
Nearly 3.3 million eligible low-income families, disabled individuals and elderly people have received vouchers through the program to help pay their rent, according to Realtor.com.
Some people may associate workforce housing, or residences for people who work in a community but cannot afford to live there, as affordable housing.
Workforcehousingresource.com said people who qualify for this type of housing make between 60 and 120 percent of the Area Median Income and are employed.
“Affordable housing is there for people who are from Section 8 all the way up to families of eight who are making $200,000 a year,” Michael Daly, a member of the Town Zoning Board of Appeals said. “A family of eight, making $200,000 a year, can qualify for affordable housing today.”
Mr. Daly works as a real estate agent and founded the group East End YIMBY, or Yes In My Backyard. YIMBY is a response to the “Not In My Backyard,” or NIMBY movement that counters many affordable housing developments.
Curtis Highsmith, the executive director of the Southampton Housing Authority, said rather than the town trying to identify what affordable housing is, it should come up with a plan to establish what divisions of housing are needed.
What is affordable, anyway? Is $200,000 or $300,000 affordable? Should affordable housing be for purchase or rent? Is $1,500 rent too high?
“We understand that nothing is cheap around here,” Diana Weir, the Southampton Town director of housing and community development said. “Even affordable housing is not reasonable or affordable, so that’s our frustration.”
The Move Beyond NIMBYism
In 2015, a 51-unit affordable apartment complex was proposed in Speonk, New York, that was called The Speonk Commons. Georgica Green Ventures proposed the construction of the 51 units on 4 acres, next to the Long Island Rail Road station in Speonk and within walking distance of the local business district.
The area where the apartments were going to be constructed was blighted and consisted of numerous abandoned buildings.
“It just seemed like the perfect opportunity site,” Mr. Schneiderman said.
Once word got out into the community, the residents roared against the project, fearing the project would bring in too many new students into the school, increase density and increase traffic on already heavily traveled roads.
Mr. Schneiderman met with Speonk-resident Craig Catalanotto over a beer at Brewology to find out why the project was hitting a wall.
“They thought it was too much for the site, but clearly they understood the need and wanted to actually make something happen,” Mr. Schneiderman said.
He then helped the developer get an additional $1.5 million for the project, and in the process, lowered the number of units to 38.
Many of the same people who were staunchly opposed to the original application praised his efforts and, ultimately, supported the project.
“We really got from dead against it, to embracing it,” he said.
Public outcry is common whenever affordable housing projects are proposed.
“When the town makes a recommendation for an affordable housing project, then all the people who don’t want it run to town halls, scream and yell, go out of their minds and say stupid things, such as ‘I don’t want my maid living near me or those people who are going to climb over the fence and jump in my pool,’” Mr. Daly said. “People like Jay and town boards and village boards are left to hang out to dry, while all the NIMBYs come to meetings, and go out of their minds.”
But the people who want to support a project typically get intimidated and back away when droves of people against the project attend a public meeting and protest the project.
“The good people are at home, watching television, eating Chunky Monkey ice cream and saying, ‘Oh, I’m sure that’ll be fine. They don’t need me. I’m not political,’” Mr. Daly said. “Going to a town or a village board meeting is intimidating, and the kind and gentle people typically are uncomfortable about standing up and being noticed.”
When people hear the term “affordable housing,” he said, they picture the worst-case scenario and make it out to be the same thing as public housing. The same people then drive through The Bronx, see the numerous high-rise public housing projects and say they do not want those in the Hamptons.
“It’s not even conceivable that one of those would be near us,” he said. “We have parents living with children that don’t have extra rooms. We have brothers living in sisters’ basements. We have kids living in garages. We’re really at a breaking point, and we’re bleeding our own local people who can’t afford to live here anymore.”
Why Does it Matter?
The biggest struggle town officials are facing is getting housing in place for people who work in Southampton.
Under the Fair Housing Act, Ms. Weir said, discrimination of any kind is prohibited when putting people into homes.
Today, senior citizens are being forced to work in order to afford to stay in their homes. These same seniors, at least some, have children or grandchildren in the area, and want to stay.
Rather than continue to try to keep up with the cost of a mortgage, many seniors are looking for ways to downsize, therefore, Ms. Weir said, they should have the same opportunity as anyone else to get into workforce housing.
The town is also prohibited from discriminating against applicants because of their age or occupation.
But housing available based on income can restrict who is eligible to get into an affordable unit.
“There are income groups that are categorized for various different developments,” Ralph Fasano, the executive director of Concern for Independent Living, which is proposing a 60-unit affordable housing development in Southampton said. “In some ways, that does assure they will be people who are working in the community because they need to meet those income levels.”
A common topic at the Bridgehampton Citizens Advisory Committee, according to Pamela Harwood, is affordable housing, especially from those who want their children to be able to continue to live in Southampton and raise a family there.
Businesses are also concerned about finding reliable employees.
“We cannot maintain good employees here because they can’t afford to live here,” said Ann LaWall, director of the Southampton Business Alliance.
A large portion of the workforce that is employed in the town, whether for the municipality, hospital or other business, come from areas west of Southampton Town – places like Brookhaven, Islip and Port Jefferson.
Locals have expressed concerns with affordable housing because the units could go to outsiders.
Ms. Weir said the town’s housing registry has over 1,000 people and 92 percent of the registrants are local. A big portion of the remaining 8 percent is made up of people in the workforce.
In July, the town awarded 15 units in Speonk Commons and in another development called Sandy Hollow Cove, in Tuckahoe. Of the 15 units, 10 were awarded to people who live in Southampton Town, according to Ms. Weir. Two units were awarded to people who live in the neighboring town of East Hampton, and three were awarded to people who live within a 50-mile radius of the town.
“They’re working here. They’re living here. They’re raising their kids here,” she said. “When we’re done with the units at Sandy Hollow and Speonk, I will have better statistics. But the statistics show that they’re mostly going to locals.”
“The piece that’s missing is for our people — our local people who are working here — the ones who need it,” said Southampton Housing Authority Chairwoman Bonnie Cannon. “How can they afford to buy these houses?”
Many people, today, struggle with credit, and while the town has suggested helping people come up with down payments for the affordable units, Ms. Cannon said the town should look for ways to get people with bad credit, into the homes.
Where Else Is This A Problem?
The affordable housing crisis is not just affecting Southampton Town; it is affecting many communities across the U.S.
In 2018, the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University released its annual State of the Nation’s Housing Report. The report has been conducted every year since 1988 and looks at trends which may or may not have changed over the past three decades and why. It also looks at whether the nation has created affordable housing for everyone.
The report states that in 1988, “the majority of Americans were well housed, and some conditions have improved since then. More than 40 million units have been built over the past three decades, accommodating 27 million new households, replacing older homes, and improving the quality of the nation’s housing stock.
But issues like low homeownership rates among young adults and the “soaring” costs of rent and housing costs are the reason.
As a result, many states in the northeast have seen people between the ages of 26 and 34 migrate away from the state. Places like New York saw, on average, 33,908 millennials leave per year between 2012 and 2016, Pennsylvania saw 4,786 leave per year and Illinois saw 17,450 leave per year. They more than likely moved to places like Colorado or Texas, where the states saw an influx of millennials. Colorado averaged 11,250 per year and Texas gained an average of 36,630 per year, according to the report.
Concerns surrounding the potential for property values decreasing because of an affordable housing development being constructed hold water.
When a person spends a large amount of money, they hope over time that the value of the home will increase over time.
Mr. Catalanotto was originally against the Speonk Commons development for the same reason as everyone else: property values would decrease.
He has since said he did not look at the full picture in terms of what the affordable housing could do for the economy of Speonk.
“We have a pizza store, we have a bagel store, hair salons and gas stations,” Mr. Catalanotto said. “We have 72 new neighbors coming in, all of which are going to use the surrounding stores and services.”
Many business districts in the town are struggling financially, he said, so why not look at different ways to improve the situation?
Instead, as soon as the summer season ends, tumbleweeds roll through the vacant streets instead of potential customers.
“Affordable housing is one of those fixes, in my opinion,” Mr. Catalanotto said. “Furthermore, Speonk and Sandy Hollow, they are going to offer us success models that we’re going to be able to point to and say, ‘Guess what folks, you have nothing to be afraid of. These are our neighbors. They’re part of our community.’”