Residents air concerns about Southold Community Housing Plan

The Southold Town Board inched closer to ratifying its Community Housing Plan Tuesday evening.

The board opened the public hearing on the 81-page housing document that outlines allowable uses for revenue the town has started collecting from a voter-approved 0.5% real estate transfer tax that took effect in April. 

Among other points, the plan, which must be ratified before officials can access the housing fund, recommends that the town:

• create a housing department to oversee the plan’s implementation and the town’s affordable housing registry, which currently counts more than 600 registrants seeking affordable housing.

• fund low-interest loans for first-time homebuyers, construction of farmworker housing and creation of community housing accessory dwelling units to increase and diversify the town’s year-round housing stock.

• start an interest-free “hero” housing loan program for veterans and active military service members, health care workers and emergency service professionals.

Mara Cerezo, a planner with the town’s planning department, delivered a brief presentation on the plan and the town’s housing needs before the public was invited to speak during the meeting. She discussed the problems underscoring the area’s lack of housing and solutions the township may use to combat a crisis of affordable housing and limited stock of all types of housing.

Among the key takeaways from the presentation was the reality that individuals who live or work in Southold cannot afford to purchase property within the town. According to the Community Housing Plan, a household earning Southold’s 2020 median income of $87,109 would fall more than $50,000 short of affording a home at the town’s median purchase price of $604,800. In addition, median income figures vary by hamlet. For example, the median income in Cutchogue in 2020 was $112,747, while that figure in the Village of Greenport was $62,045.

Ms. Cerezo presented data pulled from the internet real-estate data base Zillow about homes listed for sale within the town. She said there are five condos and three houses available at or below $604,800, and 96 dwellings (five multi-family houses, one townhouse, three condos; and 87 single-family homes) listed for between $1 million and $10 million.

Even an individual hoping to rent an affordable studio apartment, which could cost up to $1,536 per month, would have to make “around $60,000 a year” to not be cost-burdened, which is defined as spending more than 30% of their income on housing, Ms. Cerezo explained.

“The local real estate offerings are not balanced with local incomes,” she said. “The housing market is clearly skewed to those with higher incomes, not only in the number of offerings, but in the housing diversity … Between the prevalence of single-family homes and seasonal rentals, there is fierce competition for the same limited supply of available housing.”

While the lack of affordable housing is a large-scale issue the town hopes to solve, it remains a personal struggle  for those renting and for younger individuals still living at home with their parents.

“I grew up in Mattituck and it’s been great living with my dad up until the age of 29, but I need a house,” Veronica Stelzer, a teacher at Oysterponds Elementary School, said through tears at the podium Tuesday evening. “We talk about a lot of affordable housing, but I’m not looking to rent, I’m looking to buy. I’m looking to build equity … I make a really decent living, but I look to buy a home and I’m completely priced out.”

Ms. Stelzer was one of approximately 50 residents who attended the meeting in person along with another 15 participating via Zoom. Of all speakers, she was the only one whose remarks received applause..

Among the other speakers were residents who expressed support for the plan and asked questions regarding its implementation and policies. Anne Smith, who represented the town’s housing advisory commission, and George Maul, treasurer of the New Suffolk Civic Association, represented the various North Fork civic groups.

While many residents spoke favorably of the efforts to draft the plan and requested that it be ratified soon, others posed questions that went unanswered. The second speaker of the evening, Laurel resident David Levy, asked if those who qualify for affordable housing programs and units based on income and other eligibility factors must qualify for them only at the time of their application, or if they must continuously qualify, and how the town will handle this.

“If someone is no longer qualified and they don’t want to move, what do you do?” Mr. Levy asked.

The Town Board could not yet answer such policy questions regarding the still-pending proposal.

“The plan that we have now has to be implemented and there’s further decisions and details that have to be made,” Councilwoman Jill Doherty said in response  to Mr. Levy’s various questions.

The Town Board voted to leave the public hearing open, including the written comment period, through its next regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 10, at 7p.m., at which time residents will have another opportunity to voice their opinions on the Community Housing Plan.