How do we fix the North Fork’s affordable housing crisis?

09/01/2016 6:00 AM |

affordable housing

Nearly a decade ago, Alyson Reiter’s name was the first to be pulled from the spinning drum in an affordable housing lottery at Southold Town Hall. Twenty-two new homes in a Mattituck development were up for grabs at below-market prices.

And when Ms. Reiter heard her name called, she was stunned and in absolute shock.

Since then, Ms. Reiter — who works as an emergency medical technician on Plum Island — has lived in a cozy two-bedroom house in The Cottages, the Mattituck housing development that remains one of the few affordable-housing projects to be completed on the North Fork.

Ms. Reiter said she knows some outspoken residents have argued against more affordable homes, which are made available to families and home buyers with incomes near the median for Long Island.

“There’s a stigma to it,” she said. “This is ‘the projects.’ ” She laughed at the idea that her quiet street — with its manicured lawns, young families and American flags hanging from porches — could be considered undesirable.

One thing is for certain, she said: If she hadn’t won that affordable housing lottery in December 2006, she wouldn’t be able to work and volunteer so close to home.

“I couldn’t afford to live here,” she said. “I would have left my friends and family … I’m so blessed to have this.”

The Cottages at Mattituck was praised as a “success story” during a panel discussion Monday about affordable housing hosted by the Mattituck-Laurel Civic Association.

The meeting was held one week after Southold Town Board members unanimously enacted changes to the town’s affordable housing code — which allows the town to grant developers higher density for apartment projects — in a bid to entice more developers to build locally. In addition, the town has created a set of priorities for its affordable housing registry for current residents. At the top, for example, are current town residents who have lived for at least three years in the school district where the affordable unit is located.

Rona Smith, a member of the town’s housing advisory committee, said the goal is to allow people of all ages to continue living on the North Fork — a place they’d like to continue to call home.

She also gave a presentation about The Cottages and explained how it could be a model for future projects.

“The Cottages are neutral to the fabric of Mattituck,” Ms. Smith said. “Hopefully, it will lessen the worry that affordable housing will negatively impact housing values.”

During the discussion, panelist and Mattituck-Cutchogue school Superintendent Anne Smith said she believes the district will be able to absorb more students because enrollment has dipped in recent years.

District enrollment 20 years ago was 1,285 and peaked in 2004 at 1,590. Since then, enrollment has dwindled and is currently at 1,252, she said.

“Many people tell us, ‘I’d love to live here — your school is great, but I can’t afford to buy and can’t find a place to rent,’ ” Dr. Smith said.

Mattituck Chamber of Commerce president Terry McShane said affordable housing is needed in order to give local workers an opportunity to live in the community, too.

This concern was also raised during an Aug. 25 Greenport Village Board public hearing on the rental code.

Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate in Riverhead told village officials she hopes the North Fork doesn’t end up like the Hamptons, with a so-called trade parade of workers who can’t afford to live there.

During the hearing, she presented the board members with letters from Eastern Long Island Hospital employees explaining why they’d like a chance to become a part of the community.

“Each one of these letters gives reasons why they would love to be able to live in the Village of Greenport, instead of traveling from as far as Calverton, Riverhead and all other places to come here to be able to work,” she said. “They come in and they leave. They come in and they leave … I’d hate to see [a trade parade] happen to us here in Greenport.”

Mayor George Hubbard Jr. said in an interview this week that one of the main issues has been short-term rentals gobbling up year-round rentals.

“I don’t think that’s a good thing for the village since we want people to live here and work,” he said. “We don’t want to be trade parade — I’d hate to see that happen here.”

As the Village Board considers its legislative options to address short-term rental concerns, Mr. Hubbard said one affordable housing solution could be to allow apartments to be rented out above stores as opposed to artist lofts, which village code currently allows.

However, he stressed that the biggest hurdle with any proposal remains constant: a lack of parking.

Attracting developers to build affordable housing units has also been difficult, town Supervisor Scott Russell said in an interview this week.

While Southold Town had traditionally looked to promote affordable housing in “halo zones” — areas located around the outskirts of each hamlet’s center — Mr. Russell said it’s unlikely to happen since most of those properties are zoned for commercial use.

“It makes the cost for acquisition very difficult for a developer, plus there isn’t a lot of vacant property for developers in those [halo zones],” he said.

Mr. Russell also described restricting affordable housing to halo zones as an “excuse to not create affordable housing.”

“We know the land isn’t there,” he explained, “we know the financially viable proposals aren’t going to come out of those zones, so we need to come out and look at any opportunity to create housing wherever it might be located.”

While Mr. Russell agreed The Cottages has been a success, he doesn’t believe it will solve the area’s affordable housing crisis.

“The problem is it’s home ownership,” he said. “Most of the people on the affordable housing registry simply aren’t in a position to buy, so you’re creating housing that’s already out of their reach.”

When asked if he believes affordable housing projects could be on the horizon, the supervisor said he’s “optimistic” but declined to comment about any pending deals.

“We’ve met with developers in the past,” he said. “They needed to see a change in density.”

As the search for affordable housing continues, residents at The Cottages say they hope others get to experience the same opportunity to live in the community just as they have.

Before the lottery took place, Ms. Reiter, a Cutchogue native, worked as an X-ray technician and lived in Middle Island. She worked three part-time jobs to pay for a co-op.

But by the time she was chosen in the housing lottery, Ms. Reiter was back living with her parents and was seriously considering moving to Connecticut due to her job on Plum Island because housing prices there would be cheaper.

That’s the case for many on her block, she said.

“A lot of us,” she said of her neighbors, many of whom are her former classmates, “we wouldn’t have been here [without affordable housing].”

Ms. Reiter said she hesitated at first, because the homes at The Cottages can’t be resold for prices far above their initial affordable cost. They must remain affordable, according to housing codes.

Eventually, she realized she didn’t care about making a profit. She wanted the pride of being a homeowner and having an affordable place to live on her own.

“Am I going to live in a basement apartment for the same price?” she asked. “Rent is just insane.”

Ms. Reiter said skyrocketing housing prices are driving out the younger generations. Nowhere is that felt more strongly than in local fire departments, she said. A former volunteer firefighter with the Cutchogue Fire Department, Ms. Reiter said many volunteer groups are struggling to find younger members to replenish their ranks.

“There’s no one new following us to keep these departments going,” she said. Firefighters volunteer their time, and raising enough taxes to pay them salaries to afford local housing prices would be too burdensome, she said. 

Ms. Reiter said she’s thrilled to have her home, which she now shares with her fiancé and their 6-year-old cat. The couple is set to marry later this month, she said, which couldn’t have happened if they had a regular mortgage.

“We wouldn’t be able to do it,” she said.

affordable

Alyson Reiter and Tim Doucett. (Credit: Paul Squire)

A neighbor up the road, Tara Haas, said she wouldn’t have been able to raise her family if they hadn’t won the affordable housing lottery.

“I’m able to have two kids and be home with them and not have to take a nine-to-five job … just to live,” she said. Ms. Haas moved into The Cottages with her then-boyfriend, Jason, after he won the lottery. The couple has since married and now have two children, a dog and a yard.

“What people don’t realize is you’re helping people like me who went from my parents’ house to having my own house,” she said.

Like Ms. Reiter, Mr. Haas is also a member of the fire service and recently volunteered as chief of the Mattituck Fire Department.

A sign on the family’s home welcomes visitors to their “firehouse” and a chalk hopscotch outline was doodled on their driveway.

“We’ve made it very homey,” Ms. Haas said.

The couple has been able to save money and even afford a vacation for their children thanks to their reasonable mortgage, Ms. Haas said.

She added they watch so many of their peers “scraping bottom” to pay outrageous mortgages and are thankful for the affordable housing.

“They really need to do more of this,” she said.

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Additional reporting by Tim Gannon

Top photo: The Haas family (clockwise from top left), Jason, Tara, Logan and Olivia, outside their home in The Cottages, an affordable housing development in Mattituck. The Haases say they’re able to afford living and volunteering on the North Fork thanks to their low mortgage payment. (Credit: Paul Squire)

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