Guest Spot: Proposed changes for accessory apartments may worsen problem

The Southold Town Board has proposed an amendment to the zoning code that governs accessory apartments. We do need a change to the existing rules because they do not work well enough, but the proposed changes do not solve this problem. In fact, they will make the situation worse.

We need more housing opportunities. Our children, and the people who work in our shops, our trades, our fields, our restaurants, our institutions often cannot afford to live here. When there are no homes within reach, they leave to find jobs closer to where they can live. Most cannot yet afford to purchase houses, so increasing apartment stock is a more effective approach.

Town code currently allows creation of two types of accessory apartments to help address this problem. The first type is within existing single-family homes, and can be rented to anyone at market rate. The second type is in accessory structures (garages, barns, etc.), and can be rented only to family members or those eligible for affordable housing. The Town Board is proposing several changes in the rules that govern all accessory apartments.

Currently, both types of accessory apartments can be created only on property that is the owner’s principal residence. The most significant proposed changes would eliminate that requirement for both categories. Currently, there are reporting safeguards that ensure the apartments in outbuildings are reserved for affordable housing and family members. The new code would also eliminate that reporting.

These changes could have a significant impact on our community. One problem is speculation. We have seen an increasing number of house purchases by people who are not interested in living here, even part time. They just buy up multiple properties for high-rent, seasonal use, and for short-term rental, even though it is not allowed. Speculation purchases that convert houses to seasonal rentals reduce the number of available year-round apartments. This reduction in supply drives up rental prices, making the situation even worse. We have always welcomed our part-time neighbors, but we cannot afford to become a mere handful of full timers — that is not much of a community.

The proposed code amendments say you cannot rent out both the accessory apartment and the main dwelling unit. But with the removal of the principal residence requirement, some will be tempted to monetize their properties to the max. With the removal of the reporting safeguards, it will be even harder to identify and enforce against those who violate the code. We already have witnessed the fiasco of a short-term rental code that is unenforceable.

The proposals also do nothing to promote the location of additional apartments in and around hamlet centers. Focusing on creating apartments in hamlet centers is a clear goal in the draft Comprehensive Plan, and serves to help mitigate our housing crisis, while retaining the rural nature of the rest of the community. The proposed code would allow the conversion of nearly every house in Southold into a two-family dwelling (over 99%). Before we take that drastic step, we need a thorough discussion of what we want the character of our community to be.

Not only are the proposed changes problematic, the method the Town Board used in proposing them is also seriously flawed. The new code was discussed for the first time at a Town Board work session, and the same night was put on the calendar for a hearing on Aug. 27. It was never reviewed at Code Committee, the usual practice. Nor was it referred for input from the Zoning Board of Appeals, the Housing Advisory Committee, the Economic Development Committee or any of the civic or community groups that have a high stake in the shape of our housing. The only groups asked to comment were the town and county planning boards, despite urging that it be referred to other interested and expert parties. Where did this unusual, inappropriate procedure come from — and why the rush?

The current program of accessory apartments for affordable housing or owners’ families has resulted in the legal creation of only 27 units in 15 years, according to the draft Comprehensive Plan. The number of market-rate apartments also remains very small. We need to revamp and improve the system, but we need to carefully analyze which aspects of the current program work, and which do not. We need input from all the departments, committees and community organizations that have expertise in this area. We need to give the public a real opportunity for input into changes in our policy and its implementation, not just a token hearing after a proposal is cast in concrete. The current approach is another example of the Town Board’s pattern of rule-making without adequate planning or broad expert and community involvement. It has the potential for serious, unintended consequences.

Back to the drawing board. This time, let it be a thorough, collaborative project.

Mr. Hanlon is a Democratic Party candidate for the Southold Town Board.