A capacity crowd packed Town Hall Monday night for a forum sponsored by the Community Housing Board, and left with one unanswered question: Does Shelter Island want to pay to build affordable rental accommodations now, or face higher taxes in the future to replace the all-volunteer fire department and emergency services corps with paid members?
In addition, employers including the school and the ferries, questioned where their employees will come from if there’s no affordable place for them to live.
About 60 people, representing a cross-section of the Island, met to hear from employers about the difficulties they have attracting and retaining qualified workers.
While the original intent of the forum was to focus only on the perspective of employers and those who lead the volunteer services, comments from audience members demonstrated they were passionate about their needs for affordable housing.
First Assistant Fire Chief Anthony Reiter drove home the point about the difficulty of operating the department as an all-volunteer force. Fifty percent of the 70 members are 55 or older; a lack of affordable housing is absolutely affecting the ability to attract younger members, Chief Reiter said.
The department lost five members this year who couldn’t afford to stay on Shelter Island, he added, predicting that a paid fire department could be the future for the Island.
“A lot of us are really struggling to be here,” he said.
Similarly, Detective Sergeant Jack Thilberg, director of the Emergency Medical Services, said that looking five to 10 years down the road he sees serious challenges maintaining the EMS unit as a volunteer service. Many communities on the East End have transitioned to paid EMS units, including Riverhead, East Hampton and Amagansett, he said.
Given the number of hours volunteers for the EMS must put into training, many who start here discover a career path and leave the Island to take full-time jobs in communities paying EMS workers, Detective Thilberg said.
Also, the financial need hold two jobs to pay for steep housing bills makes many young people unavailable to serve as volunteers, he added. Years ago, most volunteers put in 20 or more years but he isn’t seeing that happen today — a time when most of his volunteers are older.
Bridg Hunt, general manager of North Ferry, brought passion to the discussion, talking about his organization’s long history of hiring generations of families to work the boats.
That’s being lost as more young workers move from the Island, he said. “You want your family to have a sense of place,” Mr. Hunt said. Lack of rentals is a threat to that happening. Families that once held properties for generations can’t do that now because their children can’t find interim rentals on the Island.
“It weighs on each generation,” he said, wondering if his grandchildren will be able to afford to live here or even in neighboring communities when they reach adulthood.
“It’s not as much recruitment,” Mr. Hunt said. “It’s retention” of workers that plagues the ferry service.
“We are losing young families who can’t afford to stay,” said Dering Harbor Inn manager Sheri Cavasini. The inn has a maintenance chief on-Island 24/7, she said, noting it would be “grim” if he lost his current housing.
Police Chief Jim Read said he recalls the department once having to hire an off-Island patrolman, but the turnover rate for those jobs isn’t high. But he’s aware that some of his officers, despite making good salaries, have difficulty purchasing houses at today’s prices.
The Shelter Island School District has to recruit some staffers who live off-Island, according to Personnel Director Todd Gulluscio. Some potential candidates elect not to pursue jobs because of the commute, he said.
Schuyler Needham of the family-owned Coecles Harbor Marina and Boatyard said the company has lost employees because of the lack of rental housing here, and Shelter Island Library Director Terry Lucas said she lost two good staffers this year because their commute from off-Island was difficult.
Audience members cited a number of concerns from personal needs for affordable rentals to laments about how rising costs are changing the community.
“We’re not trying to help a family, we’re trying to help out a community,” said Rebecca Mundy, adding that rental housing is critical.
“It is an issue, we are the faces” of those who need housing, Ms. Mundy said.
The former Board of Education president said her family represents six generations with three people who are currently trying to find rental units on the Island.