A Boost for Affordable Housing

Waiving parking fee may encourage private sector to create needed apartments

    Affordable housing in East Hampton Village got a small but important boost on Friday when the village board considered and then quickly adopted a zoning code amendment that will eliminate a disincentive to establishing second-story rental apartments in the village’s commercial districts.
    In the past, when the village zoning board of appeals granted variances from off-street parking requirements, applicants were required to pay $10,000 to a village parking fund for each parking space that could not be provided. But the village board realized that in order to implement affordable housing, in some cases, strictly applying those requirements in commercial zones “may require variance relief in order to implement affordable housing,” according to the legislation. The amendment “is intended to replace the disincentive with a requirement that covenants and restrictions be imposed that will ensure the continued use of the property for purposes of affordable housing.”
    The encumbrance represented by the $10,000-per-space fee had come to the board’s attention in the form of Pat Trunzo’s November 2012 appearance before the Z.B.A., at which he made a case for variances needed to convert the second floor of the building he and his brother own at 11 Lumber Lane into two apartments. Mr. Trunzo said that the fee would deplete the money for the project.
    At Friday’s meeting, Michelle Trunzo read a letter on Mr. Trunzo’s behalf, in which he urged the amendment’s adoption. “It is well drafted and well thought-out, providing relief to deserving projects while still leaving the village, through its zoning board of appeals, in control of which applications benefit from its considerable relief. As we hope to be the first to benefit from the proposed amendment, we sincerely hope it may spur other affordable housing projects in the commercial and manufacturing districts to materialize.”
    With a seemingly insatiable demand for second homes and the encroachment of those houses into neighborhoods traditionally populated by local residents, the proposed amendment represents “one of the few potential countertrends to a demographic shift that poses continuing threat to the very fabric and viability of the community,” Ms. Trunzo read. The letter complimented the Z.B.A. for being open-minded and for listening to the public with regard to the need for affordable housing.
    Public comment was unanimously in favor of the proposal. Joan Osborne, speaking for the Village Preservation Society of East Hampton, voiced the society’s strong support for “finding ways to create affordable housing units in the village where practical, applicable, and appropriate. . . . As the asset may change hands over time and tenants come and go, it is essential that any property benefiting from relief under this special exception remain affordable,” she said.
    Though neither a resident of the village nor speaking on behalf of the Town of East Hampton, Tom Ruhle, the town’s director of housing, also voiced his support. “I believe this to be an excellent move by the village toward making it easier for the private sector to create affordable housing opportunities, in this particular case over a building that already exists.”
    Waiving the off-street parking spaces fee requirement is not mandatory, Mr. Ruhle said, “but it’s giving the authority to the board on a case-by-case basis to relax it. I believe from my experience in the town that this can be done and can be maintained in perpetuity affordable.”
    Gerry Mooney, who has been managing affordable housing complexes in the town for 25 years, including the recently opened senior citizens apartments at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Amagansett, also spoke in support of the code amendment. Mr. Mooney said that a waiting list for the 175 units he manages grows daily, and that applicants can wait up to seven years for housing. “The reason we have over 350 applicants is because nobody moves. There’s really no place to go, it’s not like there’s a lot of choices out there. And when they hear that there’s going to be a long waiting list, many of them get so discouraged that they don’t even make the application after we send it to them,” he said.
    The need has never been greater, Mr. Mooney said, adding that most applicants are now sharing overcrowded housing, and sleeping on couches or in basements. They are also likely to spend half of their income, or more, on rent. “This is not only seniors but also local people, young people who have gotten out of high school and college and would love to live here, near their parents and grandparents. They work in the hardware stores, Starbucks. They’re plumbers, electricians, landscapers, waiters. But most of all, these are our neighbors and they are people that we have a responsibility to, to work with as far as providing affordable housing,” he said.
    “This is a baby step for your village government, where we’re proceeding today,” said Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. “The one drawback, as I think we all realize, is the cost of real estate. But this was a first step forward. Hopefully we will be able to build on that as time unfolds.”