Southampton Officials Say Task Force Will Tackle Stubborn Problem Of Housing

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Acknowledging the years of frustration that has characterized Southampton Town’s attempts to develop municipally supported affordable housing, Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst has called for the creation of a special task force to help the town develop a new approach to creating units priced toward young and middle-class residents in the town.

The task force, she said, will be headed up by the leadership of the town’s Housing Authority, namely, its executive director, Richard Blowes, and chairwoman, Bonnie Cannon. It will also include a wide range of town officials—both current and former.

“We’ve gotten lots of input in our discussions of the sustainability update to the Comprehensive Plan that a housing element was missing from it,” Ms. Throne-Holst said this week. “The mission of this task force will be to develop a coordinated plan for the development of affordable housing in a way that is specifically targeted to the needs and obstacles in this area.”

Along with Mr. Blowes, who served more than a decade as the town’s business manager, the task force’s membership will include other veterans of the town’s long struggles to create housing affordable to middle-class residents. Former Supervisor Patrick “Skip” Heaney and former Councilman Steve Kenny will serve on the task force. Both lamented this week the years of frustration and missteps the town took in its attempts to promote and expand affordable housing development in the town during their parallel years in Town Hall.

“I’m sure Skip remembers the year we defined affordable housing, which just fizzled out over time and didn’t accomplish very much,” Mr. Kenny said. “I’m the first to admit that when we first approached some of these problems, we did it wrongly. We used suburban models to promote affordable housing initiatives.”

In contrast to neighboring East Hampton Town, which has directly spurred the development of more than 300 housing units with town subsidies for both rental apartments and home construction, Southampton has created just a handful of units: 30 homes in East Quogue built in 1993 and 1994, eight in Bridgehampton in 2005, and 11 more awarded last fall that will be constructed in coming months.

The former town officials emphasized that the town needs to focus its efforts on alternatives to the traditional affordable housing model, continuing the efforts to help residents become first-time homeowners but also creating other forms of affordable residences. Multi-family developments and apartments that are affordable for middle-income residents who may earn healthy salaries but are not yet ready to purchase a house will likely be a key component. Zoning and sewer districts that allow apartments to be developed above stores could also be a way to spur affordable housing development by the private sector.

Mr. Kenny noted that affordable housing on the East End does not just mean homes and apartments for low-income and working-class residents. “There has to be diversity in our proposals,” he said. “We need housing not only for people at 50 percent of the median income but at 120 percent of median income. The Housing Authority can serve [a family] who earns $120,000 a year, too. That only affords a house of $350,000. There aren’t many of those around.”

Mr. Heaney, who served on the Town Board for more than a decade as both a councilman and three terms as supervisor, pointed out that affordable housing meant different things in the eastern and western part of the town and that economic factors in the western end of town were burdening some hamlets and neighborhoods, and heightening other problems townwide.

“We are becoming a tale of two towns,” Mr. Heaney said on Thursday morning. “It’s impacting school districts, it’s impacting demands on public services. You don’t find the kind of housing you have available in the western part of the town in the eastern part of town. It’s why we have so many people commuting in the morning.”

Any discussion of multi-family housing development, the officials warned, would be fraught with pitfalls of community objection and political influence.

“We have to find a way to take the politics out of affordable housing—the decision is not best made by elected officials in this forum,” Mr. Heaney said. “If there’s an application for multiple-family housing, I don’t care if it’s five units or 25 units, it gets slammed in this room. You can’t talk about specific receiving areas, you get into community hell when you do that.”

Mr. Heaney suggested that multi-family housing developments on the outskirts of hamlets—as recommended in the town’s sustainability update to the Comprehensive Plan—are a good approach to addressing the affordable housing issues, and that the authority to approve them should be in the hands of town Planning Board members, whose seven-year appointed terms would make them less susceptible to the political pressures that elected officials experience.

Mr. Blowes, the Housing Authority executive director, said that funding will be the key component to how successful the strategies the task force ultimately comes up with will be. He said that the town will have to find creative ways to fund housing subsidies and promote private sector development.

“The private sector will do a lot but they can’t do it all,” he said. “We have to do it without raising taxpayer money but using other entrepreneurial ways of generating money. Without having the money to do the work, it’s not going to happen.”

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