Many issues across the East End tie to lack of affordable housing, assemblyman says at virtual forum

Nearly every problem on the East End is related to the lack of affordable housing, Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. (D-Sag Harbor) said at virtual housing forum last week sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, Shelter Island and the North Fork.

It’s why he constructed and fought for passage of the Community Housing Fund that now is in the hands of voters in four of the five East End Towns. Only Riverhead has chosen not to put a referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot that could have enabled it to receive 0.5% of real estate transfer tax money to help fund affordable housing.

The Southold Town Board in early August approved adding the referendum to the ballot. Greenport Village officials have also expressed support for the Community Housing Fund. The Town Board approved the creation of a Housing Advisory Board earlier this month.

“This plan, if adopted, will let the town take control of its affordable housing program rather than sit back and have developer after developer pitch an idea that is going to hopefully solve our affordable housing program,” Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said at the time.

At Tuesday evening’s 90-minute forum, titled “Affordable Housing: Hope or Promise,” Mr. Thiele spoke alongside Shelter Island Deputy Supervisor Amber Brach-Williams, East Hampton Director of Housing Tom Ruhle and Southampton Housing Authority Director Curtis Highsmith. Andrea Gabor, a journalism professor at Baruch College, moderated the session. A Southold Town representative did not participate in the panel. (Mr. Russell clarified that he volunteered to participate but representatives from the League of Women Voters said the panel was full and more focused on the South Fork).

Traffic on the East End is the result of the trade parade requiring so many workers who can’t afford to live where they work having to commute, Mr. Thiele said. The inability to attract and keep volunteer firefighters, emergency medical service personnel, teachers, hospital workers and employers of restaurants, supermarkets, retail stores and other businesses is a result of lack of affordable housing, he said.

“The need — we see it everyday,” the legislator said.

“You can’t run a community with no employees,” said Mr. Ruhle.

Both Shelter Island and Southold have created limited affordable housing but only Southampton and East Hampton have well developed affordable housing programs in place.

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Ms. Gabor noted that the nonprofit League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, Shelter Island and North Fork does not support or oppose political parties or candidates for public office. The organization, however, does support the 0.5% real estate transfer tax.

The tax does apply to first-time homebuyers and the first $400,000 is tax exempt, as the law aims to target the higher priced homes.

Mr. Thiele outlined next steps if the voters in the towns approve the referendum. Each town will have its own fund and the votes are separate, so it does not need to be approved by every town to move forward.

“There will be new funding available for all the towns to increase opportunities for housing for those that are residents on the East End,” he said.

Mr. Thiele noted while Riverhead has so far not expressed interest in adding the referendum, it doesn’t mean the town can’t in the future. Officials in Riverhead have said they believe the town has adequate affordable housing.

“Riverhead certainly could do it any time in the future,” he said.

If a vote is not approved, the town could decide to try again in the future, “if they felt that certain or conditions and changed that would warrant another vote,” Mr. Thiele said.

Mr. Thiele said a common criticism received about the plan is why towns can’t take money from the current Community Preservation Fund to use for housing, an issue he said that tends to relate more to the South Fork. CPF was created in 1999 to protect farmland, open space and community character. 

“None of the towns have completed their open space plans yet, and that’s particularly true on the North Fork and Shelter Island where they haven’t generated the kind of money that East Hampton and Southampton have,” he said. “Second, the fund is also being used for water quality. And I can assure you that we’re not even close to reversing the trends on water quality that we’re trying to revert.”

In 2016, East End voters overwhelmingly approved a measure permitting 20 percent of annual CPF revenue to be used for water quality improvement projects. 

“We can’t simply build our way out of this,” Mr. Thiele said. “We need the resources to be able to do this.”

It’s not a lack of political will to deal with the problem, Mr. Thiele said. It’s the lack of resources that has caused the problem, he added.

“There’s a full balancing act that need to be looked at,” Ms. Brach-Williams said.

See the full forum here: