Greenport’s latest strategy to tackle affordable housing: state funding

When it comes to affordable housing, the Village of Greenport is especially beset with challenges.

It’s distance near the end of the North Fork makes it hard to attract and maintain employees who are commuting to work from elsewhere. AirBnB and the skyrocketing prices of homes in the village during the pandemic devastated the long term local rental market. Finally, the village doesn’t have the money to do much building of its own. The median household income in Greenport is $66,655, compared with $96,792 in the surrounding town of Southold, according to 2020 census figures.

At a debate last March during the races for open village trustee positions, the late, longtime former trustee Bill Swiskey summed up the housing situation in the one square mile village.   

“I don’t know if there’s any room in the Village of Greenport left to build affordable housing,” he said.

It’s why the village was the first municipality on the East End and one of only a few on Long Island so far to seek “pro-housing community” status with the state, as part of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s initiative to give priority consideration for up to $650 million in discretionary spending to communities committed to housing growth.

Launched last summer, the program requires that in order to be state-certified as a pro-housing community, downstate municipalities must file a plan that demonstrates it has increased its housing stock by 1% in the past year, or by 3% in the past three years. Communities without recent housing growth can gain certification by “passing a resolution stating their commitment to Pro-Housing principles.”

In November, village officials passed a resolution pledging commitment to the principles.

At the year’s first Vision of Greenport community meeting last week, Village Mayor Kevin Stuessi called on village residents to come together to find solutions to the ongoing housing crisis.

“The biggest thing we need to do is to engage the community, have discussions, educate, learn, talk about things — and then update our codes,” he said.

The mayor said that efforts to increase the village’s affordable housing stock are already underway, following a sweeping set of zoning code changes that village officials recently approved.

“We have now legalized housing above Front Street — the south side of Front Street … running from the Menhaden hotel all the way to the corner of Main [Road] … this is a big deal … and these are things that we want to look at above other buildings too. As part of that, we are in the process of updating our [Local Waterfront Revitalization Program], which is our comprehensive plan for the village.”

On hand for the meeting were the executive and deputy directors of the non-profit Land Use Law Center at Pace University, established in 1993 to foster “the development of sustainable communities and regions through the promotion of innovative land use strategies and dispute resolution techniques,” according to its website.

“We have found that communities — who are looking at housing, looking at land use changes and policy changes — find the most effective way of doing that is engaging the community in that conversation, because you’re the ones who are most affected by it,” deputy director Tiffany Zezula said during a presentation at the meeting. “You live here, you possibly work here, you recreate here. And so all of this should be a part of the public process.

“I don’t think I need to tell you, because you came out tonight, but housing is probably become one of the most powerful shaping influences right now impacting things like education, it’s impacting health care, it’s impacting the concepts of sustainability for our communities, and most importantly, as well, economic development.”

Ms. Zezula said that the law center’s work is focused on what she described as the “missing middle.”

“We’ve called it the ‘missing middle’ in some of our communitiew, because we have the large single-family homes and then we might have a couple of apartments. But it’s everything else in between that some of our municipalities are missing.”

Land Use Law Center executive director Jessica Bacher urged the community members at the meeting to think about the issue creatively.

“There’s so many really interesting creative things happening with housing,” she said. “‘How many of you watch like [Tiny House Nation] and HGTV? You see all these really cool housing ideas, and all these these old containers that people are turning into houses. I mean, it’s limitless, right?”

She encouraged the audience to think outside the box.

“Have you seen really interesting projects that  turn over old banks, churches, industrial uses? Let the creativity flow, because something was a church or was, you know, a garage of some sort doesn’t mean it always needs to be that. We’ve seen that a lot with industrial uses, and kind of warehouse housing and those types of ideas.”

Last January, the governor introduced her “New York Housing Compact,” a sweeping set of proposals to mandate housing growth in an effort to spur the construction of 800,000 new homes statewide by the end of the decade.

That plan failed to gain traction, and over the summer Ms. Hochul tried a new approach: by executive order, she launched the Pro-Housing Community Program.

Only 15 of the state’s nearly 600 municipalities have so far submitted formal applications for the program, according to a report last week in the Albany Times Union newspaper.

The state funding that certified pro-housing communities could get priority access to include the Downtown Revitalization Initiative, NY Forward, NY Main Street, Regional Council Capital Fund, Market New York, Long Island Investment Fund, Mid-Hudson Momentum Fund and the Public Transportation Modernization Enhancement Program, according to the governor’s office.