Town Board special meeting highlights complexities of affordable housing

The vexing challenges facing efforts to create new affordable housing on the North Fork were on full display Tuesday afternoon at a Southold Town Board special meeting. 

For two hours — twice the meeting’s scheduled duration — officials debated, deliberated and brainstormed about potential updates to the town’s draft Community Housing Plan and weighed the pros and cons of a new affordable housing project proposed for Main Road in Cutchogue. 

The daunting issues that were raised included: 

• how to create a system that fairly distributes new affordable housing throughout Southold Town,

• how to disburse the proceeds of a new community housing fund driven by a 0.5% real estate transfer tax that took effect in April and 

• how to define and distinguish among a host of lower-income housing designations being considered in the plan — ranging from farm worker housing and workforce housing to affordable housing, attainable housing, accessory units and “tiny” houses.

The Community Housing Plan must be ratified before town officials can access the housing fund. Town officials intend to use that new revenue stream to offer homeowner loans and shore up and sustain future affordable housing projects. 

The Town Board also discussed a proposal presented last week to build 36 affordable rental units at 29475 Main Road in Cutchogue, between Depot Lane and Santa’s Christmas Tree Farm. 

Tuesday’s mid-afternoon meeting vividly illustrated town officials’ thorniest challenge: evenly distributing approved affordable housing projects throughout the town. 

One overriding sentiment animated the discussion: Although all agree on the desperate need for more affordable housing, few seem willing to welcome it into their own neighborhoods 

Councilman Greg Doroski asked if “it makes sense to call out hamlet-specific goals” for affordable housing locations in the community housing plan. 

“One of the earlier things we heard from residents of Greenport is the fear [that] we’re going to locate all the affordable, attainable housing in Greenport. At this stage [of creating a housing plan], does it make sense for us as a Town Board to call out our understanding and our own goal of locating this attainable housing throughout Southold Town and all of the hamlets, and make it as a percentage of the population — so it mirrors the community character, just as a goal?” 

Councilwoman Jill Doherty weighed in. 

“What about land size in the hamlets?” she asked. “Because Greenport is smaller, but it’s a more concentrated population. How do you differentiate for that?”

(Projected 2023 census figures estimate that 2,000 residents are living within the one-square-mile incorporated village, according to Greenport officials.)

Mr. Doroski said issues of density would require further scrutiny. 

“I think there’s questions of density,” he said, “[but] I don’t think we can get into density in something as general as the plan. I do think we could set up a more global priority.” 

Both council members agreed on the need to declare benchmark goals for where the affordable housing would be located and how much there would be — both to inform the public and to guide developers drafting proposals to present to the town. 

Yet they acknowledged that any projections would be subject to future market forces far beyond their control. 

Mr. Doroski said that setting goals, while remaining flexible, is vital to moving the effort forward, “to show the need of including this housing throughout Southold Town.” 

“Some of that can be done with affordable apartments, accessory dwellings,” he said. “Some of it can be done with multi-family housing.” 

Ms. Doherty agreed, saying, “As long as we make it clear it’s a guide and a goal we’re reaching towards, but it’s not a dead stop — because there’s so many different [housing] scenarios.”

Mr. Doroski replied that “what this plan really is, is a kind of roadmap for us spending this [real estate transfer tax] money … There’s a limited pot of money, so we’re figuring out where we’re going to allocate it. 

“In some sense I’d rather save some money — even if we had someone come to us and say ‘Hey, I want to do six more units [beyond what was planned] in Cutchogue’ — save some money so we can do it in another place. I think this is where supply and demand come in,” he said. 

Councilwoman Sarah Nappa said population-based distribution of affordable housing could prove problematic. 

“I feel the same way about wanting to spread it across [the town], but I do feel a little concerned about putting a number on it,” she said. “I think that we’re basing this on the population of each hamlet as it [currently] is, but … adding potentially 20 units — which could possibly be 80 to 100 residents to a hamlet — that’s a lot … I feel like there’s more to look at than population size.” 

All board members seemed to concur with a point made earlier by Ms. Doherty: that the community housing plan aims to be more of a living document, subject to regular reviews and updates, than a set-in-stone rulebook.

Mr. Doroski cautioned that if the board locked in projected numbers, they would be forever held to those targets.

“I think there’s a real risk of [the plan] being perceived as a cap and we could have people from the community coming out and saying, ‘We’ve got our 60 [affordable units] — we’re done.’ ” he said.

Board members did express optimism about the outlines of the North Fork Villas plan proposed to them Aug. 15, which calls for 36 affordable rental units at 29475 Main Road in Cutchogue. 

Ms. Doherty said the proposed location conformed with town codes, but would require a change in zoning.

“We started our new program of vetting them through the housing review board and overall, it looks like a great project, a great location,” she said. “And we’re at a point where this construction company that’s proposing seems like they have the ability to construct this, and do it the way their proposed plan is set.”

She also suggested that the board think long term and use the potential zoning change as leverage to craft the best possible deal for the town from the developer, including protections for prospective tenants should the developer encounter financial difficulties down the road.

Mr. Doroski noted that, years into the future, the property owner might not be able to afford a needed roof repair and be forced to sell to a developer who could charge luxury rental rates for the units. 

He proposed a stringent financial review — one rarely, if ever, sought before by Southold’s Town Board, according to Ms. Nappa. 

“I want to see a 30-year operating budget,” he said. “If they cannot provide it at this point, then I am unwilling to move forward. I think having that information informs our discussion [and] informs the public’s discussion.” 

Mr. Doroski was responding to a challenge from an audience member, who observed that the plan’s approval seemed virtually guaranteed based on the board’s initial deliberations. The councilman flatly rejected that characterization, saying that the board’s optimism is based solely on the project’s proposed location.

“What we need to look at now are all of the other factors,” he said.

The special meeting — essentially a work session — wasn’t open to public comment, but the board entertained several pointed questions from a concerned resident who said his property borders the proposed development site.

He wished to know where he could present a petition adamantly opposing the project’s approval, which he said had been signed so far by 83 families in the neighborhood surrounding the site.