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Anti-Bias Task Force questions affordable housing priority for first responders

After the Southold Town Board unanimously approved a resolution to give affordable housing priority to volunteer first responders, members of the Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force are speaking out about the unintended consequences the measure could create. 

“We all agree that the service of first responders and volunteers is very important and deserves all the recognition and acknowledgement because we all benefit so much from it,” ABTF member Susan Dingle told Town Board members during a work session Tuesday.

“At the same time, we wanted to point out to you that, inadvertently, without intending to do so, by privileging these folks in terms of getting very difficult-to-come-by housing is going to have an impact on other communities, particularly on minority communities,” Ms. Dingle said.

In a letter from ABTF co-chairs Valerie Shelby and Sonia Spar, dated Oct. 16, the group notes that prioritizing one group over another for housing opportunities “opens the door to a wide spectrum of possible abuse and, on its face, may be discriminatory.”

Specifically, the group had concerns over how many units could potentially be “set aside” and how the priority could fairly be implemented while other eligible applicants on the list agree to a lottery selection process.

“A lot of people ask about Vineyard View,” government liaison officer Denis Noncarrow explained, referencing a 50-unit affordable housing complex currently under construction in Greenport. “That’s not part of this.”

Town Attorney Bill Duffy clarified aspects of the code, which was approved at a Town Board meeting Sept. 24.

The law was written as an amendment to the zoning code as it relates to the Affordable Housing District.

It specifies that there shall be a priority for “qualified, active members in good standing with a minimum of three years of service as volunteers in an agency providing firematic protection, emergency medical or ambulance services” in Southold town.

Officials cited waning enrollment across local fire departments and difficulties faced by young people to find local housing as the need for the code amendment.

“This preference applies only to the affordable housing overlay district,” Mr. Duffy explained. “So only when somebody makes an application to have that zoning district placed on a piece of property to develop affordable housing under that zoning is the preference applied.”

Projects such as Vineyard View or instances where existing structures are converted into accessory apartments would not need to adhere to the first responder priority set forth by the town.

“The town did not specify what the priority is going to be intentionally because it depends on the project … they could be all rentals, it could be a mix of owner and rentals, it could be a mix of market rate and [affordable]” Mr. Duffy said.

“It was our understanding that this priority was in fact talking about the 50 new units that are being built,” ABTF member Emily Geiger said.

Despite some level of misunderstanding, the dialogue was welcomed.

“We’re all learning to be more sensitive to the issues and sometimes misunderstandings occur. There can be a disparate impact that we’re not aware of,” Ms. Dingle said.

Councilman Jim Dinizio said the Housing Advisory Commission is “knocking their heads against the wall,” in order to find solutions to the housing crisis.

“They’ve been doing it since I’ve been on the board and will be doing it from now until eternity, because you think of one thing and find 10 other reasons why it can’t be done.”

He acknowledged that he hadn’t thought about implementing the priority housing from the ABTF’s perspective.

“We appreciate your view. Like [Mr. Dinizio,] I never thought that by doing this, we were taking away from others,” Councilwoman Jill Doherty said.

Ms. Shelby emphasized that they respect the essential role first responders play in the community and the struggles faced by each department to retain and recruit members. “We appreciate the firemen, we appreciate all the first responders, but we just want to make sure we include everybody,” she said.

Caption: Ms. Geiger (left), Ms. Dingle and Ms. Shelby address the board Tuesday. (Credit: Tara Smith)

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