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Checking out the Shelter Island affordable housing designs: Community meeting at the Center Firehouse

The Community Housing Board (CHB) held an open house on Sunday, May 5, lifting the veil on plans for Shelter Island’s first town-supported housing in 40 years. About 30 residents and non-residents milled around upstairs at the Center Firehouse examining floorplans, asking questions, and sharing their reactions to the designs. 

Angela Corbett, of Smith Street, said she was there because she is concerned about a nearby house that doubled in height during renovation and appears to be dormitory-like housing. Meanwhile she said, “Our grandkids all had to move.”

A resident who declined to be named said she came because she was surprised to discover that there is currently nothing listed for sale on the Island for less than $1 million.

Bran Dougherty-Johnson was one of the members of the CHB on hand to answer questions.  He explained that the plan calls for 10 small houses — the maximum number that can be built on the town properties that have been earmarked, per Suffolk County rules. The three properties are 12 South Ferry Road, next to the Historical Society; 69 North Ferry Road, next to the IGA; and 16 Manwaring Road, across from the Sylvester Manor farmstand.

Four two-bedroom and six one-bedroom houses will be built between the three lots. Once built, the houses will be rented to applicants who qualify for a one-year lease at below market rates, based on their household income.

The program will look at the Suffolk County median income, which is $146,000, as a guideline for eligibility. If the renter’s household income increases beyond the threshold for the program, they’ll have to move.  

CHB Chairperson Liz Hanley explained the site plans and the models to interested attendees. The design process was limited by rules on water use, septic flow and wetlands. Suffolk County evaluated each site and told the town how many people could occupy it, factors that are measured in bedrooms and square feet.

“We can only put a very light density in each site,” Ms. Hanley said.

A senior citizen listening to Ms. Hanley’s explanation asked if the houses would work for seniors looking to downsize. Ms. Hanley confirmed that half of the units will be ground floor and accessible. 

Resident Robert Lipsyte was disappointed to see that the plans call for six one-bedroom houses and four two-bedroom, when an important goal of the plan is to attract small families who need at least two bedrooms. Ms. Hanley explained that to secure state and county grants to support the program, the town must build a minimum of 10 units of housing.

Resident Jane Babinski came to the open house to show her support.“It’s the best thing we can do for our community,” she said. “On both ends of the spectrum — the old and the young. I have a big house and it’s getting to where I can’t manage it. Homeowners insurance is wiping me out. But I’m not there yet.” 

For one Shelter Island resident and his fiancé, the numbers just didn’t add up. They work on the Island, and their combined income is low enough to qualify, but the rent for a one-bedroom in the program may be as high as $2,144 a month and would eat up over half of their take-home pay.

Renters must make more than $75,000 annually to comfortably afford a one-bedroom in the program. They are also required to live in the house year-round, with no sublets.

A resident who is not currently looking for a rental said, “There are a lot of people who are not here who will be interested.” She thought the 10 rentals planned will be of interest to a particular segment of the market: single people making a good salary, or couples with two moderate incomes.

As affordable housing projects go, Shelter Island’s is small, and will not involve federal or town funding. The program may be subsidized by state and county grants, and the builders who construct the houses will be paid back by the rents.

Like everyone who came by the Firehouse to learn about the town’s first affordable housing initiative in decades, Angela Corbett is looking ahead. Her last question was, “How long is it going to take to get this done?”