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Southold Town Board starts discussion about community housing fund referendum

The Southold Town Board indicated plans to hire a consultant to help lay out a blueprint for community housing funds ahead of a potential referendum in November. 

In October, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed legislation that would allow the five towns in the Peconic Bay region to add 0.5% to the existing 2% Community Preservation Fund tax on real estate transactions in those towns. Each town must present a plan for the funds before holding a referendum to approve it. 

The legislation would, if adopted, also reduce the real estate transfer tax on all transactions of $400,000 or less on the North Fork. The exemption on the North Fork would be increased from $150,000 to $200,000.

The Town Board aims to work with a consultant to complete a plan by July 1 before reviewing it with the community. The next step is to set a request for proposals, Town Board members said.

Supervisor Scott Russell emphasized to the board that during the input process, members must remain objective and “step back and then let the public digest it.”

“New York State had authorized for towns to extend as a referendum, the ability for taxation of a half a percent on transfers similar to the Community Preservation Fund. There are exemptions and exclusions up to a certain house value level. It’s also partially based on household income,” Mr. Russell said. “Southold already has a community fund to incentivize affordable housing projects.” 

He said he’s spoken with other East End towns and Southampton hired a consultant to help finish the work ahead of the November ballot. East Hampton is prioritizing the deadline, he added. Both supervisors will send their plans to Mr. Russell, which they’re keeping as general as possible to allow for flexibility.

Mr. Russell said Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor), who cosponsored the act with Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), told him to make the plan general enough to avoid excluding opportunities down the road.

Town Board member Greg Doroski emphasized that the plan needs to be completed at the latest by the end of August or very early September to give the public time to review it, and initially suggested setting a June 1 deadline to potentially allow for two rounds of public hearings.

He said that according to state law, the “deadline to finalize the plan and pass a local law is 60 days prior to the election to get it on the ballot.” The July deadline is to receive the plan from the consultant.

Mr. Doroski said he is in favor of allocating most of the funds for first-time homebuyer grants or loans that would only need to be repaid if the house was sold, with an equity sharing component to split the additional appreciated value at the time of resale.

“Not only do these first-time homebuyer grants/loans allow us to help facilitate the purchase of homes, which is vital component of the American dream, because they are limited in the legislation to current residents or those who were residents within the past three years, they allow us to bypass any of the challenges related to fair housing law and a local preference in multifamily housing,” he said via email after work session.

Some ideas mentioned at the work session included offering grants to first-time home buyers and creation of public private partnerships to facilitate employer assisted housing.

“[The Housing Advisory Commission] has been discussing this for a while. I would like the time to bring it to HAC and say okay now formally, we’re asking for this. But also what Scott’s saying, if we want to do this in 2022, I think he’s right, we have to hire outside consultants like other towns have done,” said Town Board member Jill Doherty. “It’s unfair to ask HAC to speed this up. They’re our typical volunteer committee and I think in conjunction, working with HAC and an outside firm, I think we can get this done.”

She said the HAC already has a lot of information and can come to a future Town Board meeting with their thoughts. 

Mr. Doroski said the town has some money from “the inclusionary zoning buyout” that could be put toward community housing needs. 

Town Board member Louisa Evans said she supports the idea of using the half percent tax to help people with down payments.

“Most of our programs have been rentals now,” she said. “It would also be more helpful for Fishers Island … Year-round residence housing out here doesn’t depend or go along with the town’s affordable housing program, so if there was something helping with down payments then at least then Fishers Island could take advantage of some of the money that would be put into this fund.”

The Town Board also discussed educating the community about housing options.