Finding a place for millennials — local municipalities grapple with workforce housing

You’ve likely heard the term “brain drain” before. It’s an expression often used to describe the mass departure of post-college Long Islanders to other parts of the country, where the cost of living is more affordable.

On the North Fork, where the housing market has rebounded and the stock of affordable housing remains low, local municipalities are exploring ways to keep the millennial workforce from leaving the area.

“We have the opportunity to be a part of the solution to the problem, but we have work to do,” said Greenport Village Trustee Doug Roberts, a vocal supporter of legislation he hopes will open up more housing opportunities for millennials in the village.

And in Greenport, as well as Southold and Riverhead towns, the solution seems to be leaning toward more affordable rentals.

Mr. Roberts points to studies that show the millennial workforce wants to rent in vibrant and eclectic downtowns where they can walk around and travel by train or bus. Greenport has the potential to offer that, Mr. Roberts said, but most of its rental stock is tied up in short-term rentals and higher-end summer homes, leaving few opportunities for full-time residents in their 20s and 30s.

Greenport has taken steps such as enacting two-family zoning, which he said allows residents who are getting older to stay in the area by renting out half their homes. Mr. Roberts also noted a 2002 village zoning code provision that allows year-round accessory apartments above retail stores and businesses. The question now, he said, is whether that’s enough.

“I’d like to see the village be more aggressive on housing downtown,” he said, adding that strategies could include more incentives for landlords to offer year-round housing. The village also has to ask the question of whether it’s comfortable with second- and third-floor apartments downtown, he said.

Mr. Roberts said one thing working against millennials is a lack of effective lobbying for these types of changes. Until they begin showing up at meetings, he said he believes it would be difficult to get the Village Board to take any action.

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell described affordable housing initiatives his town has taken as being challenging.

“I’m going to be honest,” he said. “This is like throwing spaghetti against the wall, making changes and hoping something sticks.”

He said one of the problems is that year-round rentals across town are not only overpriced for the younger generation, but are largely non-existent. The town has tried to address the shortage, he said, through changes in the town code that ease restrictions on establishing accessory apartments and allow for up to 12 apartments per acre.

The town is currently drafting legislation that would permit apartments as principal uses in commercial zones, Mr. Russell said, which fits into the inclination of a young workforce to gravitate toward vibrant downtowns. He sees this sort of solution getting less pushback than proposals for building 50 units or more in residential areas, noting that much of the town does not have sewering to support higher-density housing.

“It would create housing in much smaller bites than what I would like to see,” the supervisor said of the downtown apartment initiative. “But something is better than nothing.”

Mr. Russell said he hears from businesses that are having a “heck of a time” finding help because potential employees can’t find housing.

“We’re losing critical mass here; look around,” he said. “We don’t have anybody mid-range. We have retirees, we have seasonal residents — all an important part of the fabric of this town. But what are we doing for the younger people? What are we doing for the workforce?”

Nancy Kouris, owner of Blue Duck Bakery, which has locations in Greenport, Southold and Riverhead, said it’s a difficult situation for all businesses.

“We’re looking for local people, there’s only so much of a job pool out here so everyone is looking for help,” she said. “We’re all pulling from the same pool of people, so we’re becoming competitive with each other. We’re not meaning to and a lot of the people here understand that.”

Rich Vandenburgh, co-owner of Greenport Harbor Brewing Co. and current president of the Greenport Business Improvement District, said it’s hard for some businesses to pay employees enough so they can afford to rent on the North Fork.

“Having an affordable place to live is a huge component,” he said. “Having that mid-tier employee who, it’s kind of hard to pay them $50 an hour, but for them to be able to rent a place that’s decent without having to share with 10 other people is tricky.

“That’s really what it boils down to,” he added. “If you don’t have a parent nearby, or sibling or relative or something, you’re kind of forced to try and house share with somebody and that always can be tricky.”

The Riverhead Chamber of Commerce recently tried to expand its labor pool with a job fair for high school students, according to president Bob Kern. He said young people need to get engaged with local businesses and see what’s available in the community. Maybe then they’ll stay, he said.

“I know that there are a couple of housing projects that are going to come to downtown Riverhead, which will really help that,” Mr. Kern said.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said “millennial housing” is critical. The percentage of rental apartments on Long Island is “painfully inadequate” compared to single-family homes, he said.

“The shortage is so acute that if you get a halfway decent job out here and you get a halfway decent job in North Carolina, the chances of you wanting to stay here are not as good,” he said, noting less expensive housing options elsewhere.

The supervisor noted he was not a supporter of workforce housing at the Enterprise Park in Calverton, but said an analysis by Stony Brook University students recommending that there should be a live-work-play environment there swayed him to change his mind. Housing at EPCAL, which has been under scrutiny from many civic leaders in town, would have a workforce requirement attached, he said.

The push for more housing is an effort to be cognizant of what the younger generation needs, Mr. Walter said.

Affordable rental proposals in downtown Riverhead can help eliminate the shortage, he added, noting that the town knocked down whatever barriers it could to get the Summerwind, Woolworth and Peconic Crossing apartment developments approved, he said, and has since been working with Georgica Green Ventures LLC to bring a five-story mixed-use apartment project to the area.

“I think the town, while we have a lot of housing options for seniors and for others, I don’t feel that we have a lot of housing options for millennials just graduating college,” Mr. Walter said. “So I’m a huge proponent of millennial workforce housing. Do I think it’s going to create a parking problem? Yup, I do, but we’ll solve that parking problem as it’s created.”

[email protected]