The following piece appeared on the NYMuniBlog on 2/15/12, as well as on Three Village Patch on an Op-Ed on 2/16/12, and can be found here. An edited version of the piece has appeared in print with North Shore Newspapers in the 2/23/12 edition. The link to the NYMuniBlog can be found here
Dr. Koppelman, Long Island’s veteran planner, has called the issue of affordable housing “one of the great regional planning failures of the last century.” Normally, I would conduct analysis of this regional planning issue from a detached and data-driven perspective that explored the issue and proposed policy recommendations towards fixing it. However, when it comes to the issue of affordable housing on Long Island, it’s all too personal for me.
You see, I, along with my coworkers, friends and lovely girlfriend, are part of the silent majority that wants to stay on Long Island. We are opposite of the brain drain. I want to buy a house, but that means eventually having to stare into the abyss that is the difficult and expensive Long Island housing market. Apartments on Long Island are difficult to find with approachable rents. I am not looking for handouts or subsidy, nor am I not willing to work for a house. I am lucky to have a nice home that my parents have provided me. We understand that you have to earn things in life. However, the problem now, is that it is even harder for us to get our foot in the door, and even harder to buy that starter house. The deck is increasingly stacked against us, and it is wholly unnecessary. More housing units may be available than ever, but plentiful stock means nothing if the units are mired down in red tape.
Recently, I had the privilege of attending the Suffolk County Department of Planning Housing Summit at my former graduate school SUNY Stony Brook. The presentations at the summit were fascinating, and the Suffolk Department of Planning should be commended on an excellent job for bringing such an interesting program together. The summit gave new perspectives to the challenges of solving an almost unsolvable problem.
None of it mattered. Looking around at the crowd, it was disappointing to see that besides a friend or two, I was among the youngest in the room, at the largest public university in the State of New York. Further, the crowd was comprised of elected officials, advocates and more of the usual players who attend these types of functions- aka people who have seen and heard this all before, yet go out and more of the same happens. It was a twisted case of preaching to the choir, in that the choir doesn’t listen to what is being preached at them.
To truly effectuate change, it is necessary to take this information away from the usual suspects, and preach it to the public. This cycle has to shift, and it has to be understood that the information learned is important for all young people to understand. The reality of living on Long Island is that people move away and eventually return looking for their piece of suburbia. We, as a regional community, need to be ready for the demographic shift to return on the upswing. The problem, as highlighted by Dr. Constantine Kontokosta, is that the scope of the need, and existing stock of affordable housing is barely quantified. We need a true understanding of what we have to work with, and proceed from there. Why should developers build a 150-unit “affordable” development on undisturbed land if our blighted commercial strips can be redeveloped in concert with our infrastructure? Local governments need to be brave and craft (and most importantly, enact) visions that are in harmony with their neighboring townships. Between 1980 and the year 2000, 97 percent of Long Island’s affordable housing stock is built in 10 percent of the Island’s census tracts, creating concentrated centers of poverty and blight. This is shameful, and the byproduct of a decade-by-decade patchwork approach. Sound planning is predicated upon a comprehensive inventory of “on the ground” conditions, and policy recommendations that reflect those realities.
To correct the problem, there needs to be a comprehensive plan that pairs Dr. Kontakosta’s inventory with the housing data found within the Long Island Regional Planning Board’s (LIRPB) Third Nassau and Suffolk Counties Comprehensive Plan. For demographic work, Dr. Seth Forman’s report for the Long Island Regional Planning Council entitled Rethinking the Brain Drain: Census Shows Young Adult Population Grows Slightly on Long Island (Dr. Forman’s report can be found here: Rethinking the Brain Drain: Census Shows Young Adult Population Grows Slightly on Long Island, September 2011) should be used to highlight actual demographic occurrences, not the anecdotal evidence put out for the last 15 years.
What was being discussed at the summit has to leave the inner policymaking circles and permeate through the public’s consciousness. Newsday has to take the lead and stoke the fires of discussion and start reporting on the realities of the housing crisis in a manner that is approachable to residents. Communities need to be realistic in their expectations for development, and understand that multi-family housing is necessary for moving forward. On the flip side, developers need to build units that are realistically priced.
As a regional community, much like the railroads did in the 1800’s, we need to standardize our terms. What is “affordable?” Is 130 percent of Area Median Income (AMI) “affordable” to a struggling family, or young professional? What constitutes the “area” in which the AMI is based off of? Why do some developers use the entire tri-state area for their AMI measure, while others use Nassau-Suffolk? Should the numbers be more localized to township, or even census tract? Currently, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines “affordable” as the following: Housing for which the occupant is paying no more than 30 percent of his or her income for gross housing costs, including utilities. According the Long Island Index, the reality is as follows:
More than one third of Long Island households spent 35 percent or more of their incomes on housing cost in 2010. Young Long Island householders aged between 25 and 34 had the highest housing cost burdens compared to the same age group living in other parts of the region. Two out five of them spent more than 35 percent of their incomes on housing.
As seen above, we are not coming close to meeting HUD’s standard. Like what should be done with “smart growth,” we should drop the buzzwords. Set a price and let the market decide what is affordable to them. According to the LIRPB, we need roughly 50,000 affordable housing units by 2035. Let’s get moving.
Lastly, the young must be part of the conversation. In an age where Facebook and Twitter provide instant interaction, policies that directly impact us are created without our input. Engage us. Start housing summits on Long Island’s various university campuses. Highlight the affordable housing issue in our high schools. In an age where a single copy of The New York Times contains more information than a person in the 19th Century would be exposed to in their entire lifetime, there is no excuse for not engaging a community in the planning process from the beginning. Community goes beyond the civic and policymaker crowd- the young, old, single and families.
The young of Long Island are highly motivated, educated, and driven. We refuse to leave the place that we love, despite what proponents of the “brain drain” will tell you. All we want is a fair shot at the opportunity to build our lives here. The problems of Long Island have been the same for fifty years. If the problems aren’t changing, maybe it’s time our approach to solving them does.