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Picking up the pieces: Considering Housing Board changes

In the wake of the Town Board taking an unprecedented action to remove a member from the Community Housing Board, the next step, according to town officials, is restructuring the code that sets a mission statement, membership requirements and responsibilities. The Housing Board is charged with exploring affordable housing on the Island.

Two drafts were introduced last week for Town Board members to consider as they move forward with only a single Housing Board member, Chris DiOrio. The initial draft, based on discussions that resulted in Bob Kohn’s dismissal, was presented by Town Attorney Bob DeStefano Jr. The second draft was submitted by Councilman Jim Colligan.

Mr. DiOrio joined residents who packed the last Community Housing Board meeting last week to demand the removal of Mr. Kohn, who had only recently been appointed to the Housing Board.

In his statement before the official resolution to remove Mr. Kohn, Supervisor Gerry Siller said that the board’s newest member could no longer “effectively serve” because he either doesn’t believe in the goal of the Housing Board or fails to understand the point is to promote community housing.

Mr. DeStefano’s draft of possible changes to the Housing Board calls for:

• Its purpose is making recommendations to the Town Board aimed at creating and sustaining housing opportunities for income-eligible residents to maintain the local economy, community services and economic and social diversity that characterize Shelter Island.

• The board will include five Island residents with broad representation from the community.

• Initial terms would be to appoint one member for one year, one for two years, one for three years, one for four years and one for five years in order to stagger terms so all wouldn’t expire at the same time. Terms would end on Dec. 31 and reappointment or appointment of new members would be for full five-year terms.

• Members would be charged with creating eligibility requirements for affordable housing and the means by which eligibility would be established.

• Members would be advocates for those in need of affordable housing and support private entities seeking to provide such housing.

• They would interface with state, county and municipal groups and other organizations with similar missions.

Mr. Colligan’s draft was similar in some ways, calling for a clear mission statement and some of the same goals. But it also puts some responsibilities that have been handled by the Housing Board in the hands of the Town Board.

The Town Board would be responsible for developing a blueprint to address affordable housing; establishing financial resources and policies; and looking at best practices in other communities that might be used by Shelter Island. The aim would be to establish long-term rental units; accessory apartments that could become rentals; startup houses for young families; senior rentals; and housing to serve others in need of housing they can’t currently find on the Island.

A major change Mr. Colligan is suggesting would allow Town Board members to serve as members or chairs of the Housing Board while still restricting membership to those on the Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals. That was the issue that Mr. Kohn challenged then-Housing Board Chairman Mike Bebon for illegally serving, and insisting Mr. Siller couldn’t assume that position either. He called for both men to resign their Town Board seats. Mr. Bebon resigned.

If adopted, this change would allow a Town Board member to serve on the Housing Board just as Mr. Colligan does in leading the Capital Planning/Grants Committee, and Mr. Bebon had while also chairing the Water Advisory Committee.

Mr. Colligan’s proposal would stipulate that the Town Board, Town Attorney, Town Engineer and Town Board liaisons pursue existing or new properties that could support the development of affordable housing,

The liaison to the Housing Board would be charged with maintaining a critical connection to the Town Board, providing direction and guidance and a “healthy exchange of ideas.”

Mr. Colligan called for a “more concerted effort to gain support from the public for the need to develop affordable housing” by information on the benefit to the community.

Similar to Mr. DeStefano’s draft, Mr. Colligan would want the Housing Board to participate in reviewing the approval process for those interested in affordable housing, including the establishment of qualifications and reviews of applications. The Housing Board would establish and maintain the town’s housing registry, verifying applicants’ eligibility and prioritizing applicants based on criteria as currently listed in the Town Code that requires they be United States citizens or legal residents whose income meets necessary criteria.

Priorities as currently spelled out in the Town Code are as follows:

• Those who have lived and worked on the Island for at least a year.

• Those who previously lived in the town for at least a year and wish to return.

• Others who are income-eligible individuals or families.

The code provides that if the number of eligible applicants exceeds available housing opportunities in a particular category, the town could develop a system for establishing a housing lottery.