With the approval of a new .5-percent tax on most real estate sales, town officials in East Hampton, Southold, and Southampton expect millions of dollars to begin flowing in next year for affordable housing efforts. On Shelter Island as of yesterday morning, the authorizing measure known as Proposition 3 appeared headed for defeat by a single-digit margin, though absentee ballots could tip the current eight-vote balance.
Each of the towns must figure out how to use the money, deciding, for example, to spend it as it comes in or to borrow against future income for larger initiatives. Eligible expenses include low-interest loans, new construction, rehabilitation of existing buildings, and buying rental properties. First-time homebuyers would be exempt; the tax would apply to purchases above $400,000 on deals up to $2 million and to the entire cost above $2 million. Officials are contemplating zoning code changes that would allow for more cottages and apartments on private house lots, among other things.
There is a serious risk of misuse and political influence taking precedence over sound decision-making. Though advisory committees will review housing expenditures in advance, the ultimate authorities will be the respective town boards — who appoint the committees’ members. This system may have worked in the case of land preservation, but when it comes to funding actual development, abuses may be difficult to avoid. Indeed, all over New York State, government contracts have proven an endless source of corruption. Why this should be any different is not clear.
One way to provide additional oversight for the housing fund would be to require a planning board majority vote, not just on the details, but on the projects themselves; town boards alone are an inadequate safeguard.
Time is of the essence, given the rate at which housing costs have grown relative to income on the East End. In East Hampton, since 1999, the median income has risen by less than a half, not even close to keeping pace with real estate prices doubling. At present, one-quarter of households in East Hampton spend at least half of their income on housing, and more than 70 percent of renters and more than 33 percent of mortgage holders at least 35 percent of their income. This has created a profound wealth disparity in which sellers and landlords reap the rewards from the sacrifices of others. This economic injustice affects everything from health care to educational success. In such a rich area, we should be able to do better. The 2-percent land and water preservation tax has proven a great success; now it is time to turn to taking care of our people.
For the towns where voters favored the creation of community housing funds, the real work begins now, including making sure the money is spent wisely.