Editorial: Who benefits from affordable housing?

The critical question that hangs over affordable housing projects proposed on the North Fork is this: Can new units be exclusively for local residents? With workforce housing increasingly scarce, with fire departments having difficulty recruiting new members because it is too expensive to live on the North Fork, who are these units meant to benefit?

Existing laws say that if taxpayer money is involved, the units must be open to any who qualify. An eligible resident living anywhere on Long Island, who draws the right number in a lottery system, could live in workforce housing in, say, Cut­ch­ogue. To some that doesn’t sound fair.

What about if no public money is involved? Can local authorities approve an affordable housing complex financed with private money whose backers reserve it exclusively for local residents? Or is that a form of housing discrimination?

This is how Eric Dantes, a Mattituck attorney and member of the Southold Town Zoning Board of Appeals and Housing Advisory Commission answered that question:

“There is no specific law on the books. And if you talk to three different legal theorists, you’d get three different answers. I mean, technically, if you go to the law on the books, yes, you can, but it does open you up to grounds for a lawsuit.”

This is where the issue gets in the weeds. Even with private money an affordable housing project exclusive for locals is on legal thin ice. Lawsuits alleging discrimination could result, which would then call into question any project that tries to set aside affordable units for locals. It sounds like a variation of “no good deed goes unpunished.”

At a recent board meeting on a workforce housing proposal on the former Knights of Columbus property on Depot Lane in Cut­ch­ogue, attorney Bill Goggins, who represents the project, made this point:

“My thought in doing this was we would have housing for the people in town, the volunteer firemen, people who do EMT volunteer work, employees that are stuck at home with their parents because they can’t afford an apartment.”

That certainly sounds good if that goal holds up through all the financial requirements placed on lottery applicants and the units stay that way over time. What if the complex is sold 10 years down the road? Can the rules change?

This issue came into sharp focus at a board meeting last month when the Cut­ch­ogue Woods affordable housing project was discussed. Supervisor Scott Russell was the lone dissenter on the board, voicing worries that locals would be largely shut out of the apartments during a lottery selection process.

The Cut­ch­ogue Woods project described income qualification to rent a unit as “between 60-100% Area Median Income.” It was stated in the meeting that the Nassau-Suffolk AMI is higher than the AMI in Southold Town.

To Mr. Russell, the 60% threshold would disqualify many Southold residents. Mr. Russell summed up the emotional core underlying the workforce housing issue locally:

“It’s very hard for me to tell this community of residents that are dying for affordable housing that we’re sorry, we’re going to build this, but we can’t really guarantee you’re going to get any of it, or anybody you know is going to get any of it.”

Local governments can only do what the law permits, yes. Lottery rules for such projects on income requirements, and the need to maintain that income, are complex. And even with a wide-open process, locals who enter the lottery and who qualify could still win the right to live in these units. 

But it also seems like one of the roles for local government is to protect local citizens first. Building an affordable housing project in a town that is home to many residents who grew up here but cannot afford to stay and seeing those units go to people who live in other towns and perhaps commute to jobs up west, is a hard pill to swallow.