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Housing Money in Search of Solutions

Thu, 09/30/2021 - 09:51


A measure passed in the New York State Legislature that could radically change how affordable housing projects on the East End are funded awaits Gov. Kathy Hochul’s signature. The Peconic Bay Region Community Housing Law, if signed, would direct the East End towns to hold public votes on a new .5-percent tax on most real estate sales. The money raised would be available for town leaders to spend on new efforts to buy or build affordable places for year-round residents to live. This might sound good, but it falls short of reaching that goal.

The proposal would also change the calculation on the 2-percent community preservation fund tax by increasing the threshold at which it kicks in from $250,000 to $400,000 on the South Fork and Shelter Island; for North Fork property sales, the level would rise to $200,000. Its backers in the Legislature say that the changes would actually reduce the tax charged on deals at the lower end of the market — $1 million or less on the South Fork and Shelter Island and $400,000 or less on the North Fork — by shifting it more onto higher-value property transactions.

A lack of housing is proving a source of stress on the East End, as local businesses increasingly face challenges in finding and retaining employees. Several organizations recently have had to endure shakeups, as key staff decide the commutes from elsewhere on Long Island had become intolerable. One effect is that the pool of job applicants shrinks or dries up entirely as relocation to the area becomes all-but impossible because of housing costs.

With the pandemic driving the real estate market to an all-time high, the other side of the equation is out of balance, too. And with a stunning 40 percent of houses in the Peconic Bay region tied up as seasonal and short-term rentals, supply has dwindled as the need has soared.

The South Fork in particular is the worst offender. By allowing growth to continue unbridled, it has created its own imbalance, as seen in the bumper-to-bumper traffic as workers stream east in the mornings and home to the west at the end of their workdays. Elected officials here boast about how “green” they are, with promises of a better future by such-and-such a date, but this is sharply contradicted by the excessive carbon footprint of thousands of commuters.

Finding the money for new housing is the easy part. In East Hampton, a proposal for a town-backed 50-unit development has met forceful opposition. Immediate neighbors already put upon by poor planning along Springs-Fireplace and Three Mile Harbor Roads are understandingly upset. But residents who live nowhere near the site are calling out the town for dumping unwanted projects there and for the substantial increase in daily vehicle trips this new idea would create. There must be something to these objections — when a similar project was being planned for town property on Stephen Hand’s Path, Wainscott School District residents exploded in anger. Determining where, exactly, the income from the .5-percent tax might actually be spent is the challenge.

Without looking at the housing crisis as a whole, politicians may be playing it safe but will never solve the problem. With thousands of names on waiting lists, the towns cannot build their way out of this mess by simply throwing money at it — tackling demand is essential. As the situation gets worse by the day, moving toward a zero-growth strategy is essential. Like water and land, housing is an equally finite resource. This argues for immediate building and redevelopment pauses to buy time to search for solutions.

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