Proponents of an affordable housing complex in Wainscott said last week that they’ve been stalled after receiving backlash from the Wainscott School Board, which recently sent out a letter to residents in opposition to the project.
Last Thursday, November 20, the Windmill Housing Development Fund, which is pushing for the complex on Stephen Hands Path, held a meeting at St. Michael’s senior housing complex in Amagansett to get their proposal back on track and moving forward.
“We are rather stalled—it’s like we got our legs chopped off a little bit,” said Michael DeSario, the chairman of the group’s board of directors. “We’ve learned this, to a degree, is a political decision, but I think we all can influence it.”
When Windmill Housing unveiled its proposal to the Town Board and to the public in July, what seemed like a welcome idea was quickly rejected by some. Wainscott School Board President David Eagan was vocal about how detrimental having more students coming into the district would be to the school and to taxpayers there.
The plan calls for a $15 million, 49-unit complex on Stephen Hands Path, with a 3,000-square-foot community center, behind town-owned soccer fields.
The housing would be reserved for low-income residents, according to Mr. DeSario, and preference would be given to those who already live and work in East Hampton. He said it would be good for young people just starting out, and young families, or people who now live in shared houses and illegal apartments. He added that the rent would be 30 percent of a qualified person’s income, or about $12,000 to $14,000 a year.
Closer to Sag Harbor, but still in Wainscott, the Sag Harbor Community Housing Trust is in contract to purchase The Cottages at 782 Route 114. The 2-acre parcel has eight dwellings, some of which already serve as housing for families with children attending the Wainscott School, according to Greg Ferraris, the trust’s president and founder. He said there are no plans to increase the density at the property; therefore, it will have no greater impact than what currently exists.
But Mr. Eagan said last month that both complexes would bring “destructive changes” to the school by increasing the tax rate between 66 percent and 168 percent, if an expected 70 to 110 students were to join the district.
Currently, the Wainscott School educates 21 students and has a capacity of only 24 students, according to Mr. Eagan and the study a district had done. The building has one big classroom, which can be divided into two as necessary. If there were more than 24 students, the district would have to consider building an addition, he said, which could cost as much as $4 million.
Windmill Housing representatives, who have not yet seen Wainscott’s study, contend that based on the number of children at four of the town’s affordable housing complexes, where there is about one child per three bedrooms on average, it’s expected that just under 30 students could be added to the district, and it’s likely that fewer than nine children would actually attend the school. The others would be either too old to attend the kindergarten through third grade school or attend another charter or private school.
Additionally, they argue that adding 28 students to the district would increase the tax rate by only $48.47 per $1,000 of assessed value. Currently the tax rate sits at $176.35 per $1,000 of assessed value—the lowest of all the East Hampton hamlets.
But Springs School Board President Elizabeth Mendelman, who attended the meeting, said it could be different if they take into account the state’s 2-percent tax cap formula, which wasn’t figured into the equation.
The Windmill Housing board said the location in Wainscott wasn’t chosen because the hamlet’s school assessments are five times smaller than in Springs or because it is the wealthiest hamlet, but because it was the best piece of land available in terms of size, location and impact.
Mr. DeSario said the board vetted out placement with the planning department and looked through a lot of properties. The land was gifted to the town a number of years ago for general use, he said.
“Once it seemed a viable spot and we found out it was in the Wainscott district, we met with David Eagan,” Mr. DeSario said. “He was very expressive that he supported affordable housing but felt it wasn’t appropriate and suggested the town could move the school district line slightly over to incorporate it into the East Hampton School District.”
Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said the town has received somewhere between 20 and 30 calls and emails from Wainscott residents concerning the proposed housing project, most of whom were concerned about the impact on the school and only a few who voiced support.
Mr. Cantwell said he has been talking to both sides, Mr. Eagan, the town’s housing authority and the Windmill Housing group, to try to find a compromise.
“I’m trying to raise the discussion about some of the rhetoric,” Mr. Cantwell said on Tuesday. “I’m trying to get both parties to find some kind of ground … the goal is to absolutely minimize the impact on the school district and at the same time put some affordable housing on the site, which I think is a good site. We ought to be able to meet some part of that need on the site with some proposal that does not have a meaningful impact on the school.”
Mr. DeSario said the group feels the discussion has been cut off and wants the Town Board to actively consider the project. “East Hampton has the second-highest poverty rate [7.6 percent] in Suffolk County, outside of Riverhead,” he said. “I’ve gotten 50 phone calls from people wanting to be put on the waiting list or to know when it’s open.”
Gerry Mooney, the co-manager of the Windmill Village apartments and of St. Michael’s senior housing complex, said that adding more affordable housing is the only way the town is going to keep its workers. “People need housing,” he said. “People are coming from as far as Manorville to do work out here. They would love to have a clean, safe place to live. I’ve seen many people whose families have lived here for generations and had to leave. This is an opportunity for people to still stay close to their families, and we should think of it in those terms.”
Mr. DeSario, speaking for his board members, asked for support to get the Town Board to consider putting the project back on the table, even though there are a lot of steps that need to be taken to answer the myriad questions he expects will be asked.
In support, Katarina Mesarovich of Wainscott, said Mr. Eagan’s letter does not speak for all Wainscott residents. She said she was appalled that the school district would take such an insensitive approach.
“I thought it was appalling, inhumane, and incredibly selfish and short-sighted,” she said. “Who else? Where else are we going to send them to? We’re a community. To me, it’s bullshit. My tax rate is the same as a three-bedroom condo in Hamburg, New Jersey.”