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Affordable Housing Committee gets development road map

Having identified two sites for affordable housing — one on the site of the former Highway Department barn on South Ferry Road and the other on Manwaring Road — the Community Housing Committee on Feb. 11 got a major shot in the arm from arguably the most knowledgeable housing expert on Long Island, Diana Weir.

Ms. Weir, currently Southampton’s Director of Housing and Community Development, has served a long tenure with Long Island Housing Partnership and for 30 years has been involved with housing issues.

Responding to an invitation from Shelter Island’s Community Housing Committee Chairman Mike Bebon, she not only spent two hours explaining how municipalities have launched efforts toward providing affordable housing, but promised to assist the committee in an ongoing role, providing guidance and materials to help the town move its program forward.

Show me the money

Ms. Weir brought encouraging news on the always difficult problem of how to fund construction of affordable housing.

There’s been controversy in recent weeks about property being acquired for preservation, with some residents demanding that Community Preservation Fund money be redirected to housing. But CPF money is restricted to land preservation and water quality improvements. It can’t be diverted for housing, although there’s a new push by Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor) to create a fund for housing by adding a half percentage point to preservation funding and dedicate it toward housing.

Mr. Thiele got this legislation pushed through the Legislature, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed the bill. Ms. Weir said it had the word “tax” attached to it and the governor was turning thumbs down on anything that implied more taxes. But like current CPF money, it’s not a tax paid by everyone, but only by those who are buying property in East End towns.

Ms. Weir said she believes Mr. Cuomo will sign the new bill, which is expected to sail through the Legislature.

Also present at the meeting last week was Larissa Brown, one of the consultants working with the Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee. Affordable housing is among the priorities members of the committee have identified as a need for the town and Ms. Brown wanted to understand the efforts being made to move the initiative forward.

Borrowing a page from Southampton’s book, Ms. Weir suggested that the Shelter Island Town Board consider floating a bond to provide initial funds for a project. That’s how Southampton and East Hampton started their own successful affordable housing programs. In Southampton, a $3 million bond was passed by voters, but Shelter Island doesn’t necessarily have to seek a bond that large, Ms. Weir said, since Shelter Island is a small town with limited space for affordable housing.

NIMBY woes

Until now, despite the earnest efforts of many who have led and served on the Community Housing Board, and the general recognition of the need for affordable housing, whenever a site has been identified, it’s been met with petitioners objecting to the plan.

What’s different this time is two sites have been identified, and the administration of Supervisor Gerry Siller is totally committed to taking action, he has said. Because of Ms. Weir’s advice and additional information, which she’s pledged to share with the committee, the town now has a road map to make it happen.

“The town has to be strong enough to get it done,” Mr. Siller said at the  meeting. “We need to show them we can do it.”

Planning ahead

Chairman Bebon — also a town councilman — believes he has a draft plan for a four-unit rental property that, from the outside, would resemble an attractive house. Committee members believe that getting one structure built would convince naysayers that what they envision as affordable housing is entirely wrong and that there’s a place for such housing on the Island.

There were early suggestions that wetlands on the Highway Department barn site might prohibit using that land, but Mr. Bebon said the wetlands area is less than what he expected.

There are questions to be determined on the sizes of the parcels and the mandated distance between a well and a septic system on a lot.

The first unit would be the four-unit rental house, while the second would probably be an affordable house for sale with a single affordable apartment. The apartment could be within the house or even a separate structure, perhaps created over a garage.

What’s important, Ms. Weir said, is that anything created as affordable must remain affordable and there are methods of doing that. An owner of an affordable can be restricted from ever selling it at a market price, but has an option of turning it over to the housing authority that will buy back the structure and sell it again as an affordable to another candidate. However, the owner can be allowed to make some changes to the structure with the permission of the housing authority. While the price the initial owner has paid to acquire the structure can be increased, it can never go to a market price and the profit from the sale must be shared with the housing authority that can over time become a funding source for future projects, Ms. Weir said.

Nothing purchased or rented as an affordable can be used for seasonal or short-term rentals, she said. Affordables created by owners for relatives may not have a lease for the tenants, but will still be monitored by the housing authority to ensure it continues to comply with any restriction with which other affordables must comply.

Under current town zoning, affordables haven’t been allowed in the Near Shore and Peninsular Overlay District. But committee member Chris DiOrio said any place on Shelter Island should be considered for affordables.

Committee member Peter McCracken told his colleagues he feels better for the discussion that appears to now have the town moving forward with efforts on housing.