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Housing Crisis Ideas

Wed, 04/27/2022 - 18:21


A bill sponsored in the State Legislature by Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. may represent the beginning of a big step forward on easing the region’s attainable housing crisis by providing low-cost loans and tax incentives to property owners. A parallel measure sponsored by Mr. Thiele would direct local governments to write five-year housing plans in an attempt to get them to look at the problems — and potential solutions — in a systematic way.

The challenges are very real on the South Fork, as tenants and, increasingly, employers know all too well. Year-round and seasonal rental housing at a price point accessible to most people is basically no longer available. Blame can be spread widely, from the rise of short-term stays to officials’ failure to deal with growth creating more jobs than can be filled locally.

By the numbers, things look bad, if not impossible: According to the U.S. Census, the median value of an owner-occupied house in Suffolk in 2019 — pre-Covid boom — was about $400,000, but in East Hampton it was $870,000 and in Southampton, $670,000. At the same time the median household income in every town in the Peconic Bay Region was below that of the rest of the county. Soaring real estate costs they can do little about, but the area’s town and village governments do control several levers that could help.

In a relatively recent decision, the East Hampton Town Board doubled the number of affordable units that could be built on an appropriately zoned property from two to four. A few years after that, it decreased the lot-size requirement for a second dwelling from about an acre to three-quarters of an acre. But, so far, these efforts have not been taken up with any great enthusiasm. The loans of up to $75,000 that Mr. Thiele has proposed might help start construction of new units. But hurdles remain, including county wastewater regulations that can strictly limit housing density. Increased property taxes after so-called accessory units are completed are also are an issue, though Mr. Thiele’s measures would allow local governments to create exemptions.

Also ahead is a referendum on a half-percent transfer tax on most real estate deals that would be dedicated to housing. We hope that voters in the East End towns will see a yes or no proposition on their ballots starting with this November’s election. The money would go into a fund that could help with up to half of the up-front cost for first-time homebuyers, subject to limitations. It could also pay for building new housing, land acquisition, and financial advice to individuals — all important parts of the puzzle. 

The prospect of tax breaks, low-cost loans, and funding is promising, but these ideas may still leave too much responsibility for solving the housing problem in the hands of individual property owners. To be truly effective, local governments need to find ways to get builders and real estate investors excited; unless there is an upside in dollars and cents, little is ever going to be built. Also important will be finding more ways for public-private partnerships to create housing, as has been done on Martha’s Vineyard to some success. As the East Hampton Town Board declared, it is time for all hands on deck on housing.


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