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Affordable housing forum draws mostly supporters

If “Shelter For All” was intended to inform those who oppose using a transfer tax to fund affordable housing, it instead attracted mostly supporters of the Community Housing Fund, who are becoming strategists to counter opposition to affordable housing.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon on April 30 more than 20 people came to the Presbyterian Church hall to spend 90 minutes discussing what they see as the necessary creation of affordable housing.

Many who attended are members of the Community Housing Board and/or the Community Housing Fund Advisory Board. But there were others who got a lesson in what it takes to afford to live on Shelter Island, whether in rental houses or to purchase a house.

The members of the two boards continually reminded  the group that they were speaking as individuals because, especially for the Community Housing Board, its members are charged with developing plans for affordables, but not campaigning for the resolution that will appear on the November ballot. If Island voters pass the referendum, it would enable the use of a transfer tax paid by purchasers of Island properties, to help pay for developing affordables.

Bran Dougherty-Johnson offered a math lesson to the gathering about what constitutes affordability, pointing out a wage earner should not have to spend more than 30% of household income for either rent or mortgage payments. 

He drew on statistics provided by a recent Suffolk Times story about the North Fork’s affordable housing crisis; a PBS documentary, “Owned: A Tale of Two Americas;” a story in a website affiliated with New York magazine, explained why buying a house today is so much harder than in 1950; and data compiled on Long Island housing profiles by the Regional Plan Association that issues reports on various New York trends.

Housing costs increased 74% between 2011 and 2021, Mr. Dougherty-Johnson said. Accordingly, it would take an income of $350,000 a year  to purchase a house costing $1.345 million when that same house in 2011 would have cost $770,000.

To afford to rent many available houses or apartments today, an Islander would have to be earning at least $36 an hour to stay within that 30% allocation for housing if the cost were to be paid by a single wage earner. 

With a median income for Islanders today of $79,843, wages haven’t begun to keep pace with home prices, he said.

As for rentals, it would be a stretch to pay $1,996 per month on that income, but that’s not even in line with what most rentals are costing, he said.

Those favoring a means to make housing affordable for more people raises the issue of how housing affects the future of the Island — its basic character. The data shows many of those whose families have lived on the Island for years have had to leave, selling their properties only to the wealthy.

The committees are exploring ways to create pathways to ownership for those who start off as renters but want the equity of home ownership. Members have been comparing efforts in neighboring communities and other islands — Block Island, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, trying to learn what ideas can work on Shelter Island, and which wouldn’t be transferable.

Elizabeth Hanley, who chairs the Community Housing Fund Advisory Board, pointed out participation in the fund would enable bonding opportunities for more money until the effort to maintain affordable housing on the Island could become a self-sustaining vehicle. On the other hand, she noted that larger towns like East Hampton have been able to take advantage of federal funding for which Shelter Island wouldn’t qualify because of its relatively small size.

Plans call for discussions to continue with scheduling of more forums. But those who participated also want to hear the voices of those who have questions or doubts about the direction the town could take if voters approve the ballot resolution in November.