The Southold Town Board on Tuesday adopted a resolution that will give priority status on the town’s affordable housing registry to volunteer first responders.
The measure, which was approved unanimously, comes with the added stipulation that eligible volunteers must be in three years of good standing with their department.
“That was a request of the fire chief’s counsel,” said Supervisor Scott Russell. “Secondly, it goes through annual qualification, just like income. If income changes, people no longer qualify. If their status as a good standing member of the fire department no longer is in place, then they would no longer qualify.”
Volunteers in emergency medical or ambulatory service positions will also be eligible for priority. The proposal was first discussed at a work session in May, when Mr. Russell said he wants to see local volunteer first responders get priority on the registry. He estimated at that time that there were approximately 150 people on the registry, noting an uptick in applications since the 50-unit Vineyard View project in Greenport was introduced.
At a public hearing prior to Tuesday’s vote, former Housing Advisory Commission chair Rona Smith expressed concern over local fire departments’ low retention rates, suggesting a volunteer might move into the apartment but not stay on the job much beyond that period.
She also said that giving preference to first responders means that the limited affordable housing stock could too easily be filled by first responders, leaving little to no options for others.
“This is sort of like hanging gold bricks on the street and saying only certain people can get those gold bricks and I just think it’s a slippery slope, a bad way to go, in terms of the few instances of affordable dwellings that we’ve managed to come up with,” she said.
Ann Murray of East Marion mentioned the “terrible problem” where first responders are unable to secure housing in her hamlet.
“We have no affordable housing left and we haven’t for many years,” she said.
Greenport Fire Department Assistant Chief James Kalin seconded the need for housing for volunteers and said it’s a factor in the retention rates.
“The largest hurdle to membership in the volunteer firefighter service and the volunteer ambulance service in this town and this state and across the country is recruitment and retention,” he said.
He said the department does make efforts to lure new members through special programs, but that keeping them active requires that they have a place to live.