John Fox, a gray-haired man from Centerport, can hardly hold back his tears. His eyes are moist as he explains why he opposes the Matinecock Court affordable housing development that’s been proposed for East Northport since 1979. Tonight he’s expressing his frustration at a public meeting held by the Town of Huntington at Northport High School. Earlier in the week, he was outside Huntington Town Hall with about two dozen people protesting AvalonBay’s planned apartment complex in Huntington Station chanting, “No way, AvalonBay!”
“It breaks my heart,” Fox tells the Press. “We’re overcrowded already. We don’t want Queens or Brooklyn or whatever here! When I was 18, you could jump in your car and drive wherever you wanted. Now it’s bumper to bumper!”
That attitude is deeply rooted here and the effects are widely felt.
Get out a map of Long Island, close your eyes, and jab it with your finger. Chances are you’ll land on a neighborhood where legal apartments are hard to find and decent houses are out of reach for those who earn less than, say, 80 grand a year.
You’re a recent college graduate who wants to live close to where you grew up so you can keep an eye on your folks. Or just found an entry-level job in your chosen field but the pay sucks and the commute is an hour of hell each way. Perhaps you’re ready to finally settle down with your significant other, so you want to rent while saving for a down payment on your American Dream. Maybe you’re retired and want a smaller place that’s just as nice as where you raised your kids—and still be close enough to watch your grandkids grow up.
Scenarios such as these are all-too-often unattainable on Long Island. Despite the recent passage this week by the Suffolk County Legislature of $3.5 million for two developments in Riverhead and Bay Shore, our region’s crippling shortage of affordable housing is well-known and it may be worse than most people think.
It starts with the lack of apartments. Take a look at other high-cost counties in the New York area, and you see how bad the disparity is here: Westchester has 38 percent of its housing stock in apartments; Bergen in New Jersey has about 35 percent; Fairfield in Connecticut has almost 30 percent. On Long Island, it’s roughly 17 percent.
“That is not normal,” says Marianne Garvin, shaking her head. She is president and chief executive officer of the Community Development Corporation of Long Island, one of the leaders in affordable housing programs in our region. “I attribute it to the history of who moved out here. My parents came from Brooklyn. Our parents—I’m talking generations now—lived in the city, and when they came out here, they wanted their single-family homes.”
They got them by the bushel: Practically overnight the farms were gone and a new crop of capes, colonials, ranches, split-levels, you name it, sprouted in their place. The residents got the suburban zoning they wanted to keep it that way (we’ll leave our discussion about the race-restricted covenants like the ones in Levittown for another time). And we get to reap the harvest of land-use problems we see today.
How Did We Get Here?
“A lot of people blame the builders but the builders were building what the zoning allowed to be built,” says Matt Whalen, president of the Long Island Builders Institute and vice president of development for the Long Island territory for AvalonBay Communities, Inc., which specializes in high-end apartment complexes. “If you came in and said, ‘You know what, I’d like to preserve 10 acres there and do 10 homes of higher density right here next to that,’ the towns would say, ‘No, it’s too dense.’ So then you build on the whole 20 acres, and you wind up not preserving land.
“I don’t disagree that the real estate industry, left to its own devices, can create a lot of problems for itself,” he grins. “We get going we can’t stop ourselves; it becomes a feeding frenzy. But on Long Island that’s never going to happen. In 2009, we built less than a thousand housing units on an island that has almost 3 million people. That is unbelievable.”
Calling itself a “leader in the multi-family industry,” AvalonBay is a publicly traded company worth about $10 billion. The real-estate investment trust (or REIT) is a luxury-rental builder, owning 65,000 units across the country; 2,000 of them are on Long Island, with another 1,000 planned here. About 20 percent of the rental units are designated “affordable,” which means they’re made available below the prevailing market rate to renters who earn less than the area’s median income.
On Long Island, the median household income as determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is $103,600. Just for the sake of comparison, as of April the median price of a house in Nassau was $397,495, and $318,000 in Suffolk.
“I happen to be in the rental sector that most of my competition has been scared away from trying to do,” says Whalen. “I’m not an ‘affordable housing developer.’ I’m a market-rate developer who happens to build inclusionary housing developments.” (Inclusionary refers to dividing the units between market-rate and affordable, usually an 80-20 split.) “It’s a great model and it’s worked all over the country.” The developer makes a profit and the people who need a break get a place they can afford.
“Almost half of my renters are under 35, so I’m renting to the young person we’re actually trying to keep here,” continues Whalen, 43, who once captained the U.S. Rugby Team and today still looks like he’s not afraid to go head to head with any opponent. He’s had his hits and misses. On Long Island, AvalonBay has built in Glen Cove, Melville, Long Beach, Smithtown and Coram. But after a protracted scrum with Oyster Bay, AvalonBay couldn’t break ground there.
“I think there was a group of civic leaders [in Oyster Bay] who would rather see nothing than progress,” Whalen says, “and they unfortunately had a closed mind to seeing any kind of development scenario on that site.”
He’s hoping for a different outcome in Huntington Station, where the town board will vote July 6 on AvalonBay’s proposal to build 490 units (25 percent affordable) on a 26-acre tract within walking distance of the train station. More on that battle below.
Getting municipalities to warm up to the idea of supporting affordable housing has “actually become easier,” says Jim Morgo, the current economic development coordinator for the Town of Brookhaven and founder in 1988 of the Long Island Housing Partnership, a not-for-profit developer and multi-service program provider, which will screen applicants for Avalon Huntington Station.
“There’s not as much of a stigma as there used to be,” Morgo says, “because people can go to see affordable homes. They can meet the people who live in them, and they can see that they’ve had a positive impact on the communities. The problem is, like so many other things on Long Island, you can’t get any uniformity in approach because land use is controlled by every individual village and town.”
On the issue of affordable housing, Morgo’s a reluctant realist about the Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) attitude. He admits that there are “plenty of folks around who are completely against it. They still have visions of poorly maintained public housing projects that haven’t been built on Long Island for 40 years.”
Lawrence C. Levy, director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, is less sanguine.