An eternally popular topic of conversation — usually among those of a certain age — is how the world is changing at head-spinning speed. The old wisdom that nothing is as permanent as change is especially true on Shelter Island, where even relative newcomers are witnessing their hometown being transformed seemingly season to season.
Part of that is due to what all candidates in both parties running for president are cautioning against — a shrinking middle class. The Island, which was once home to a thriving mix of diverse incomes, ages and professions, is becoming what Planning Board member Emory Breiner, addressing the Town Board more than a year ago, termed “a resort community.”
Mr. Breiner added, “Sometimes I don’t think you realize what the Island is.”
Ken Pysher, who serves on the Water Advisory Committee, disagreed with Mr. Breiner, dubbing the Island “an urban semi-retirement community.”
Whatever label you prefer, there’s little argument that the Island is hosting a graying population, with the median age 48.2 years, compared to the New York state median age of 38, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Another fact hard to argue with is that the Island has become a place where people who grew up here find it increasingly difficult to afford houses, start families and settle down. Plus, single adults, who want to live and work on the Island, find there is a severe shortage of rental apartments.
Is this a problem beyond a sentimental notion of staying where one’s roots are? There are those who say yes, including constituents of Councilwoman Chris Lewis, who, she said, are demanding the Town Board act on the proliferation of “McMansions” as opposed to more reasonable residences.
There are several reasons why the middle class, the young and blue collar workers are being shut out. One is the discovery by the wealthy of the Island as a summer and weekend retreat, which in turn drives the real estate market; another is the economy in general, with the buzz words “income inequality” carrying weight on the East End; and still another reason is college graduates entering the world of work overwhelmed with debt to pay for their education.
An old solution to the problem is being heard again around the Island and at Town Hall — an effective plan for affordable housing.
This is the first in a multi-part series on the issue by the Reporter.
No country for young folks
The problems Shelter Island faces because of rising housing costs may not be immediate, but the Town Board, recognizing what the future could hold, appears poised to target the issue of affordable housing.
Officials don’t have to look far to see communities to the west now paying their firefighters and EMTs because too few young men and women are available to serve as volunteers.
Nor do they have to look farther than the South Fork to witness the “trade parade” of workers who commute from long distances to work for construction companies, landscape firms, vineyards, restaurants and the hospitality industry.
Even the North Fork, once safe from such problems, is experiencing more new homeowners buying properties as weekend and vacation retreats, with no rental space for locals.
Caught in the middle is Shelter Island, which already has a large share of its work force coming in via ferry and a lack of housing for sons and daughters who want to return here after college, but can only make it work by moving back with mom and dad.
The problem of its former children wishing to relocate here may be the prime force driving the Town Board to take up the issue, something it hasn’t done in almost a decade.
In 2008 — following a contentious public hearing — the Town Board established a “Community Housing Floating Zone” meant to be a working plan for affordable housing. The legislation opened the door to “creative and imaginative” land use, according to the resolution that became part of the town’s zoning code.
The aim was to allow a property owner to rent units even if the owner didn’t live on site, and to maintain those units at affordable rental rates as determined by a scale maintained in the Town Clerk’s office.
The ordinance remains on the books and provides two routes to affordable housing:
• A special license to install apartments within the footprint of an existing house;
• A floating zone, allowing construction of a development of higher density than usually allowed under the zoning code, providing that housing is for affordable units.
Despite the passage of the legislation, it wasn’t until 2011 that the first two applicants filed for and received approval from the Community Housing Board for their plans.
Both are still renting affordable living spaces, according to Ms. Lewis. But no other applications have been filed, she said. She didn’t know why others haven’t sought to use the program since then.
In the mid 1990s, six affordable houses were built on Bowditch Road and made available through a lottery for those who qualified based on their incomes and ability to pay what would be mortgages averaging $65,000.
Because no federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) money was used, the town was able to restrict qualified applicants to those who already lived on the Island in rental spaces, but wanted to buy houses they could afford.
Six people finally qualified for the houses, and all of the houses are still occupied by at least some of the original family members.
Most of those houses have undergone renovations, adding space to the original houses as family incomes increased. Landscaping has attractively blocked views of the town Recycling Center and anticipated concerns about odors haven’t materialized.
Because no HUD money was involved that could have required keeping the houses perpetually affordable, if they changed hands today, it would be at market prices.
With the success of that effort, the Shelter Island Housing Options Committee (SIHOP), a group of volunteers, was formed to continue to identify opportunities for affordable housing. In 2000, SIHOP conducted a survey to determine the need and enlist more volunteers.
But with few applicants for the housing, SIHOP became dormant. “SIHOP exists as a community trust,” Ms. Lewis said in 2012.
It could still accept financial contributions or property on a tax deductible basis.
Despite the success of the Bowditch houses, there was resistance to the concept, whether it was called affordable, low income or workforce housing, according to the late Patricia Shillingburg, who led SIHOP.
Taken to task
An examination of the challenge to bring affordable housing to the Island, should go back to 2003, when the town launched a Planning and Zoning Task Force. One of its charges was to look at the issue of affordable housing. The first suggestion coming from the task force was that it be retitled “‘reasonably priced housing,’” said John Cronin, who wrote a report in conjunction with an analysis by Phillip Herr a Massachusetts based consultant experienced in community planning and design work.
“No program will work without a common base of support,” Mr. Cronin wrote in the task force’s report.
With increased prices of housing on Shelter Island, younger families were finding it difficult to buy or rent here and the local government would have to take a leadership role, Mr. Cronin maintained.
Several strategies Mr. Cronin highlighted in 2003 are likely to be on the table today as the board begins to look into the issue again:
• A requirement that all new subdivisions provide affordable units
• Waiving of density requirements where private affordable housing is proposed
• Opting for property tax relief for certain categories of households
• Partnering with private organizations to develop affordable housing
Further analysis by Mr. Herr, nonetheless, pointed out difficulties Shelter Island faces. “The problem of housing affordability on Shelter Island is of profound proportions and will require very large effort if it is to be effectively addressed,” Mr. Herr warned.
“The dynamics of the marketplace are eroding the basic nature of the Shelter Island community … as Islanders are selling off their community” piece by piece, he wrote.
With an average income of $53,000 for Island residents in 2000, just three years later, seasonal buyers and renters had shut out half the Island population, the report said.
Two thirds of houses had been purchased by relatively wealthy people from other places, Mr. Herr wrote, adding, “The concern is not just that Shelter Islanders are becoming wealthy; it is that such powerful stratification changes the kind of community that exists.”
There’s an erosion of the market in year-round houses and greater pressure to find “starter homes” for young adults here, he concluded.
The challenge today is what Mr. Herr identified in 2003.
Part II will look at the direction elected officials might take in discussions on affordable housing.