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Schools Take on Housing Crisis

Wed, 11/10/2021 - 16:53


So much has been said about the lack of places to live on an ordinary income that the mind almost numbs. Now, the East Hampton schools aim to do something about it. It is hoped that an opening chapter will begin on Nov. 30 with a forum on affordable housing to be held in the auditorium at the high school.

Public schools are on the receiving end of policies over which they have no control. Here on the South Fork, the growth of the work force has put pressure on school districts to adapt and grow; in the last decade, nearly all of them have undertaken multimillion-dollar renovation and expansion projects. During the same period, the chance that faculty and support staff can live in the area has sharply declined. This has made hiring and keeping qualified teachers especially challenging.

The situation has only gotten worse. During the Covid-19 pandemic, home sales surged by more than a third as people fled New York City and other high-risk urban settings. In 2020 alone, prices jumped, with the median cost reaching $1.2 million on the South Fork. A reliable indicator of how hot the real estate market got, the community preservation fund, reeled in record income. October was the 13th month in a row that revenue from the 2-percent tax on most property deals in the East End towns exceeded $10 million. East Hampton Town alone has taken in about $48 million since the start of the pandemic. Year-round rental inventory, always limited here, declined further, as owners cashed in on the extra-hot market.

The rest of the local economy boomed, too. Real estate churn tends to set off a spike in the trades, as new owners renovate. With a limited pool of labor, local contractors and landscaping companies have had to look west to keep up. The action has also been good for UpIsland businesses, which provide everything from roofs to safe rooms. Even without knowing the numbers, an observer would be able to see the effect on the region’s roads. Traffic crawls east in the morning, as workers slowly try to get to their jobs, and west in the evening, as they go home again. For the schools, traffic and the housing shortage have made hiring and retention, already difficult because of the degree of specialization required among teachers and administrators, a nightmare.

The East Hampton School Board hopes to begin rewriting this story at the upcoming forum. It has invited local government officials, surrounding school district representatives, instructional and non-instructional union leadership, and local organizations affiliated with affordable housing to join in. The goal is to work toward a collaborative effort.

There may be some hope on the horizon. Voters in 2023 will have the opportunity to approve a new half-percent real estate sales tax patterned on the community preservation fund but earmarked exclusively to help alleviate the housing crisis. This is an exciting prospect. The catch for schools is that they do not get a share; like the C.P.F., the new fund would be administered by the towns. This means that districts will have to go with their hands out to town boards for help. Town boards, faced with competing demands from business, might not act in the schools’ best interests.

We believe that a portion of any new housing tax should be dedicated to schools. There is precedent for divvying up the preservation fund income; up to 20 percent of annual income can be diverted to water quality projects. It makes sense, as we try to preserve the environment for future generations that we consider the needs of our own children, too.

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