Home for sale. Sign in front of new home

The Riverhead Town Board recently decided it would not pursue establishing a Community Housing Fund, which would enhance affordable housing opportunities for years to come. Riverhead has an “adequate” amount of affordable housing, according to town officials.

We disagree. 

Home prices and rents have skyrocketed since the pandemic. Even homes that were built by the town in its first foray into owner-occupied affordable housing more than 30 years ago are selling for over $500,000 today. A 1,300-square-foot, three bedroom ranch on a half-acre, built as part of that first affordable housing development (original sale price $65,000-$67,000) sold in May for $531,000. 

Town Board members need only examine the real estate transfers listings to get a realistic idea of what homes in Riverhead Town are selling for today. People — especially young people — are struggling to find housing in Riverhead affordable enough to allow them to live comfortably, particularly in a town with limited opportunities to earn a living wage.

We believe the town government has the duty to at least try to mitigate this struggle in the interests of its residents — and in the interests of its own future as a viable community. 

A healthy community requires a healthy mix of housing types, including ownership opportunities. A healthy community also requires opportunities for young people starting out — opportunities to buy homes where they can raise families. Let’s learn from what happened in surrounding communities on the East End, where that healthy mix is lacking. They must “import” a workforce to do jobs that all communities need done — from teachers and doctors and nurses to contractors and landscapers. The lack of housing opportunities also results in a lack of volunteers to serve in fire departments and rescue services.

Riverhead Town should reconsider its decision not to adopt a local law implementing the Peconic Bay Community Housing Fund Act — the law sponsored by Assemblymember Fred Thiele and State Senator Anthony Palumbo to allow local governments to create a fund with revenues from a half-percent real estate transfer tax, to establish a town-sponsored affordable housing program. 

The logic and data used during a recent work session discussion to justify the board’s decision was flawed at best. 

First, the notion that Riverhead has an “adequate” amount of affordable housing is just laughable. This conclusion was based on an affordable housing analysis prepared by planning consultants AKRF, hired by the town to handle its comprehensive plan update and fired, according to town officials, for its failure to make adequate progress on the project.

AKRF based its assessment of what’s affordable using the Nassau-Suffolk area median income of $139,925 for a household of 2.5 people — the “average and projected household size for the town,” the memo states. Meanwhile, Riverhead’s actual median income is only about 72% of Suffolk’s median income.

AKRF used $3,498 as the monthly rent deemed “affordable” based on the Nassau-Suffolk median income and concluded that 100% of Riverhead’s rental housing was affordable on this basis. 

Do you think a $1,780/month studio apartment in Riverhead Hamlet is affordable? How about a $2,495/month two-bedroom apartment in Calverton? The affordable housing analysis says they are. We think not.

Second, the affordable housing analysis doesn’t even address ownership opportunities.

Board members say they are hoping to attract young professionals and Riverhead natives who want to start their own families. They want to encourage people to buy property instead of rent, they say. The Peconic Bay Community Housing Fund, while not a cure-all, can help the town accomplish that goal. It could fund grants and low-interest loans to first-time homebuyers who qualify for financial assistance under income limits set by state law. So why not authorize the fund? We didn’t hear a single compelling substantive reason.

Third, the board relied on bad information to make its decision not to pursue the housing fund. 

Financial Administrator William Rothaar told board members if they create the housing fund, the transfer tax exemptions would be automatically increased and the amount the town will collect in Community Preservation Fund revenue — which is raised by a separate 2% transfer tax on the sale of real property — will be reduced by an amount the town can’t afford to “lose.”  

But that’s not true. Under the law, the exemption increase is left to the discretion of the board, according to the legislation’s author, Thiele — who also authored the original Community Preservation Fund that has produced over $1.5 billion dollars for land preservation in the Peconic Bay Region since its inception in 1999. 

Even if Riverhead opted to raise the exemption amount — from $150,000 to $250,000, as is now authorized — the negative impact to the CPF would be negligible, in our opinion. The higher exemption amount would have cost the town only about $192,000 out of the $6.9 million raised by the CPF for Riverhead in 2021.

Riverhead officials like to point fingers at the other East End towns and say Riverhead has done more than its fair share to address the issue. The bottom line for us is not what other East End towns haven’t done and could be doing — it’s what Riverhead residents need and what our town needs. Period. And Riverhead comes up short where affordable housing is concerned. A $500,000 starter home may be a “steal” in a community where homes are selling for $1 million or more. But it’s still a number that’s out of reach for most of Riverhead’s young adults looking to put down roots in the town where they grew up. Especially when you consider the scarcity of jobs that actually pay a living wage.

There’s a lot of talk about wanting to make it possible for “our kids” to stay here. Well, this is where the rubber meets the road, folks. And without bold action, those kids will keep hitting that road themselves and never coming back.

We urge the Town Board to reconsider its decision and do a detailed, honest examination of how taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the Community Housing Fund would benefit Riverhead residents, especially the younger generation. We hope to see this on the ballot in November 2023.

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