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Year in Review: Affordable housing appears forgotten


In less than a year, the proliferation of online and other short-term rental arrangements have changed the housing discussion on Shelter Island.

What was initially talk about providing housing for graduates who want to return to their hometowns, but not move back with parents, or young families who needed rental housing but can’t afford exorbitant prices, has morphed into a lively and often angry debate about short-term rentals.

Shelter Island has some legitimate year-round rentals and likely, some illegal rentals.

Councilwoman Chris Lewis put it well a while back, saying she knows there are multiple rentals on Shelter Island that aren’t legal. She sees them as she rides around the Island noticing attractive curtains hanging from upstairs windows over garages.

What it tells her is there’s a need for affordable rentals, a subject about which she has been passionate for years.

And clearly, there are homeowners who benefit from the extra income that a year-round rental provides.

But creating opportunities for affordable purchases or rental spaces is something that eludes the Town Board, at least so far.

“We do live on a different Island than when I moved here,” Ms. Lewis said about the complexities of today’s housing market.

The town owns only a single parcel that could accommodate, at best, two houses and escalating land costs prohibit buying more lots for development, Ms. Lewis said.

The Community Housing Board (CHB), resurrected in 2016 after being long dormant, focused on the only project submitted, but it was denied by the Town Board after neighbors rallied against it. That proposal came from broker Janalyn Travis-Messer to build a prefabricated two-unit rental structure on North Ferry and Hedges roads on a 0.30-acre parcel.

Neighbors complained about parking, traffic and the potential number of people who might live there.

Ms. Travis-Messer had envisioned a family with children in a three-bedroom unit and an individual or young couple in a small attached one-bedroom unit, but neighbors saw a structure that could house up to nine unrelated adults.

After losing her battle for the project, Ms. Travis-Messer charged that the town never really intended to create rental units, with many on the Town Board maintaining it wasn’t opposed to the concept, but saw this project as potentially too dense for the lot.

Still the CHB and the independent Shelter Island Housing Options Committee, which could raise money to offset rental prices, remain intact, but idle.

Most Town Board members admitted when the legislation to create rentals for workers was drafted, no one envisioned a developer would suggest building new structures. The reason so-called “floating zones” were created was to allow some freedom from certain zoning restrictions.

But instead of revisiting the legislation that created the CHB to meet the need for more year-round rentals, the Town Board and, it seems, many residents, got sidetracked with the issue of short-term rentals.

The problem is that a proliferation of these rentals take properties that might have been used for year-round rentals out of that market, making it harder for workers here to find permanent rental housing they can afford.