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Town hires consultant to assist in implementing new housing policy that prioritizes first responders

Southold officials have brought on a consultant to guide them in implementing new housing policy.

At a special meeting April 21, the Town Board approved an agreement with Manhattan-based attorney Kevin Dwarka, whose website says he specializes in land use and economic consulting.

Supervisor Scott Russell said Mr. Dwarka will be advising the town in its effort to prioritize first responders in its affordable housing initiative.

In September, the Town Board adopted a resolution giving volunteer first responders priority status on the town’s affordable housing registry. 

To qualify for priority status, the volunteers must also be eligible for the town’s income-based housing lottery and have been in good standing with their department for three years. If their income rises above the allowable threshold, they would no longer qualify.

The plan has been supported by local fire departments, who attribute the dwindling numbers of young volunteers to the lack of affordable housing options in the community.

“The largest hurdle to membership in the volunteer fire service and volunteer ambulance service in this town and this state and across the country is recruitment and retention,” Jim Kalin, an assistant chief in Greenport, said at a September hearing, adding, “To keep these new members active, they need a place to live in Southold Town.” 

Under the terms of his $4,000 contract, Mr. Dwarka is expected to complete a report examining federal, state and local laws that could limit the town’s ability to prioritize the “essential workforce” in its housing programs, strategies used by other municipalities to accomplish similar goals and how town code might need further modification.

“The review by the consultant is where and what projects can that requirement be applied to,” Mr. Russell said Monday.

Private landowners who build affordable housing under the town’s program are required to make volunteers a priority, but the supervisor said the consultant is studying how that requirement could translate to projects undertaken with state or federal funds.

“Federal law generally does not allow towns to create priority criteria mostly, with regard to residency. However, it does allow towns to make workers from certain fields or other individuals a priority if there is a demonstrated need. The consultant will look at our program and advise when and under what circumstances it can be applied,” the supervisor said.

While the term “essential workforce” has taken on broader meaning amid the COVID-19 crisis, Mr. Russell said that, with regard to housing, the town is specifically focusing on members of local volunteer fire departments, including firefighters and EMTs.

Construction is nearing completion on the 50-unit Vineyard View affordable apartment complex in Greenport. Applications for that lottery are now being accepted, with a deadline of July 9. 

Mr. Russell said first responders will not be prioritized for placement in the Vineyard View apartments.

“That is actually not part of the town’s affordable housing program,” he explained, since the property already had higher density zoning in place. “The limits and criteria would be established at the state and federal level,” he said, rather than governed by the town’s affordable housing district guidelines.

Though Mr. Dwarka’s contract had a four-week completion deadline, Mr. Russell said the Town Board hasn’t received his report yet. “I think we all have to assume that there will be understandable delays in matters such as these given the impacts of the pandemic,” he said.