Greenport grapples with affordable housing dilemma

Like so many East End communities, Greenport is struggling with the challenges of creating new, affordable housing in a waterfront village that’s seen its property values skyrocket and its long-term rental market dry up. 

At a special work session last week, Greenport Village Board members discussed approaches ranging from allowing more accessory dwelling units and multi-family housing options, including apartments inside single family homes, to the possibility of the village building its own units — highlighting the thorny challenges ahead for the village and the entire North Fork.

Deputy mayor Mary Bess Phillips, who chairs the village code committee, said the first step in tackling the affordable housing crisis is restricting short-term rentals in the single-square-mile incorporated village.

“We need to deal with short-term rentals before we move on to any type of residential housing [zoning code changes], because we do not want to create, let’s say, an accessory dwelling unit, and then all of a sudden it turns into a short-term rental facility.”

The code committee has been trying to come up with a “housing definition of single dwellings, two-unit dwellings and multi-unit dwellings,” Ms Phillips said.

Among the committee’s preliminary recommendations are that all accessory dwelling unit (ADUs) have a permanent foundation, be no smaller than 275 square feet and no larger than “the floor area of the smallest primary dwelling on the property,” she said. “In other words the [ADU] would be on the property, but it would be a separate household.”

Ms. Phillips went on to say that “the biggest issue with [ADUs] is going to deal with lot size, the setbacks and the side yards.”

She said the committee will also recommend a six-month minimum on ADU rentals on a homeowner’s property.

“We have some people who come up for six months out of the year looking for someplace to rent. We have a lot of the restaurant staff that come here [in the summer] and go down south somewhere in the winter.” 

Later in the meeting, Trustee Patrick Brennan said that a six-month minimum on rentals may not go far enough, noting, “To the extent that we allow even a six-month rental, that displaces, that eliminates the ability for a [year-round rental].”

Additionally, Ms. Phillips said, the committee supports combining the R1 (single-family) and R2 (two-family) residential zones into one.

She cautioned, though, that “this is all the beginning of a work in progress. We have a lot to discuss, but … we’re at the beginning of starting to lay down some groundwork to get further definitions and some suggested code changes.”

Trustee Julia Robins responded that an ADU as currently defined would require a variance. 

“If every [ADU] has to go [before the Zoning Board of Appeals] for a variance … that needs to be corrected,” she said.

Ms. Phillips agreed, and said the code committee would be requesting assistance from experts at the nonprofit 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,” according to its website.

“We do feel that there’s a lot of technical things that go along with this particular section of code,” Ms. Phillips said, adding that assistance from the law center would be valuable. 

The law center’s executive and deputy directors previously spoke about affordable housing options at a January community meeting in the village. That followed a sweeping set of initial zoning changes passed in the fall, which allowed for rental apartments on the second floors above storefronts on the south side of Front Street, among other changes. 

“Housing has probably become one of the most powerful shaping influences right now impacting things like education,” Tiffany Zezula, the center’s deputy director, said at that meeting. “It’s impacting health care. It’s impacting the concepts of sustainability for our communities and, most importantly as well, economic development.” At last week’s session, Ms. Phillips underscored the immediacy of the village’s need for affordable housing.

“We need housing for lower income people to be able to stay in the community. We also need housing for our younger generation to come [here] because our census is getting older. And we need to make those opportunities available. Whether ADUs is really the way to go I don’t know. But it’s a discussion that’s taking place.”

Mr. Brennan said ADUs are only one piece of the puzzle.

“I think the ADU solution — while they might be part of the solution — I think it’s going to be the most challenging to pull off. And I don’t think it’s going to be the magic bullet that solves our housing.

“I’m not against ADUs,” he said later in the discussion, adding that, as an architect, he’s “familiar with variances and setbacks and accessory structures. And I think that many of these buildings are going to require some kind of expansion or possibly increase the degree of nonconformity. 

“I know that the team from Pace pointed out that restrictive zoning is one of the biggest obstacles to more housing,” Mr. Brennan said. “I have a difficult time seeing how we can eliminate the requirement to get a variance … because there’s other issues at stake: there’s privacy with other neighbors, there’s safety issues, parking.”

Ms. Phillips repeated that the code committee’s evaluations are “a work in progress.” 

Ms. Robins noted that the affordable housing issue extends well beyond the village.

“I think that the ADU conversation is an important one. But I do not believe that we here in the Village of Greenport are going to solve the housing crisis on the North Fork,” she said. “I … really have come to realize that the language that we’re using is wrong. I don’t think ‘affordable housing’ is an appropriate term for what we really need here. What we need is housing security. People need to know that they are going to have a place to live, and they’re not going to be displaced by the whim or the decision of somebody who’s going to sell the house and move on. We’ve discussed this many times. I think that multi-family dwellings of some sort are really what is going to open up some opportunities.”

Mr. Stuessi concurred, saying that it’s going to take the “wider community on the entirety of the North Fork [to find] ways to create rental housing that’s affordable, and housing for sale as well.”

He also suggested a possible site for the village itself to build affordable housing: “The village has close to 15 acres that I think we ought to be taking a look at — which is both the [McCann’s] campground and the Clark’s Beach parcel. 

“I think we should commission a study [and] take a look at the potential options for both of them, because I think we’d be able to find a way to get close to probably 80 units between the two,” the mayor said. “Obviously, we have the rental income from the campground, but there’s the ability to do a ground lease with a developer, or do the same thing over at the beach, and we might be able to create 80 units within the course of the next year and a half.”