Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The House That Levy Built?

They're Talking Affordable Housing -- Again

Folks have been asking why we haven't made much hay -- or any, for that matter -- of the Steve Levy/Jim Morgo proposal to expend some $87.5 million to get the Downstate Suburban Workforce Housing for Economic Sustainability Act off square one.

After all, Levy has stood in the forefront of innovative initiatives, and whether one agrees or disagrees, from property tax to immigation, Levy has been Johnny on the spot with ideas, many of which -- like a credit card with property tax credits back instead of cash or reward points -- actually make sense. Jim Morgo, now a Deputy County Exec in Suffolk, once headed up the Long Island Housing Partnership, leading the way on the affordable housing front.

Certainly, $87.5 million toward the cause of keeping our children on Long Island and jump-starting a faltering economy by building homes our young workforce can afford to own, is nothing to sneeze at.

So why the big yawn?

Well, maybe its because this workface housing initiative -- by whatever palliative moniker it is being heralded as today -- is nothing new.

In fact, we've heard it all before, from Albany to the County Seat, with affordable housing measures considered, and even brought up for a vote, in the State Legislature -- year after year -- only to be stalled in one Senate committee or another, fated for untimely death.

Indeed, in February, 2006 -- soon-to-be two years ago -- we blogged (among myriad posts on affordable housing options) on the Long Island Workforce Housing Initiative. Read, Assembly Gives 'Thumbs Up' To Affordable Housing.

Not much, if anything, has happened since. Well, not on the streets, anyway.

Perhaps the nuances of the Levy/Morgo plan -- with incentives rather than mandates -- will make this go 'round of the affordable housing carousel more appealing, at least to the leadership of the State Senate, if not the NIMBYistas living in our own backyards, who themselves do more to stifle progress toward a sustainable Long Island than even the most dysfunctional legislature.

Then again, with the shortsightedness of both the electorate and local government -- to whom "density" is doom, and "income thresholds" somehow don't equate with "these are our children we're talking about" -- we can't be very optimistic that there will be all that much support for this incarnation of the affordable housing start.

And in a State Legislature that can't even muster enough votes to get a bigger, better bottle bill out of committee, well, let's just say we wouldn't hold our breath for the passage of a suburban workforce housing initiative, especially for us lowly downstaters.

Will this $87.5 million being bantered about be the much-needed catalyst for brick-and-mortar, or merely the seed money (as in "$87.5 million here, and $87.5 million there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money") for further studies of a growing problem that begs for practical solutions, not political pandering.

We at The Community Alliance support the Downstate Suburban Workforce Housing for Economic Sustainability Act (for whatever our support may be worth), and encourage our readers to contact their State Legislators, demanding that they introduce and pass affordable housing initiatives early in the upcoming session.

If the State Legislature does not act, prudently and appropriately -- and if Long Islanders don't lay NIMBYism and provincialism aside, insisting that their legislators do just that -- it will be too bad. Too bad for us. Too bad for our children. Too bad for the economic future of Long Island.
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From the Editorial pages of The New York Times:

A Place to Call Home: Something’s Got to Give

A long-simmering crisis in housing has led the counties of Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Orange, Putnam, Rockland and Dutchess to unite behind legislation encouraging municipalities to build more housing that regular people can afford. It is called the Downstate Suburban Workforce Housing for Economic Sustainability Act. It is a solid attempt to confront a chronic suburban problem and deserves wholehearted support in Albany.

The plan was unveiled last Wednesday at a meeting on Long Island that brought together planning and housing officials from all those counties as well as representatives of municipalities, home builders and nonprofit housing organizations. The hosts were the Suffolk County executive, Steve Levy, a dogged champion of the housing cause, and his deputy Jim Morgo, who in an earlier life as a housing advocate spent years chipping away at the granite cliffs of Nimbyism — the entrenched local hostility to “affordable housing” of any shape and size, and one of the main reasons for the fix this region is in.

Mr. Levy and his allies realize that they are never going to build affordable units by decree; under the sacrosanct principle of home rule, local officials who insist that subsidized housing will be built over their dead bodies need never fear for their corporeal dignity. The Workforce Housing act, therefore, relies on the use of carrots and more carrots, sweetened slightly by euphemisms like “workforce housing,” which emphasizes the fact that businesses will not move to or stay in the region if their employees — including the daughters and sons of Nimby parents — cannot afford to live here.

The act dreams up creative ways to cajole municipalities into building new housing willingly.

After setting target goals for housing units by municipality — an idea that has been tried, with some success, in Westchester — the state would help a participating community meet those goals in a number of ways. It would give money for planning and developing “Housing Opportunity Areas,” designated zones where units would be built at higher-than-usual density, with at least 20 percent of them set aside for people who meet income thresholds. It would give cash payments for each new affordable unit built, reimburse communities for the costs of new schoolchildren and lend money at no interest for public infrastructure improvements.

The act, in other words, tries to anticipate and counter the innumerable, often frantic objections that communities raise any time anyone wants to build or rebuild a handful of town houses or apartments here or there. New housing is seen as utterly incompatible with a long-held vision of suburban Eden — the detached, single-family home with enough space around it, from yard to driveway to street, for its inhabitants to feel unoppressed by other people.

It has taken a long time, but more people are realizing that such a vision is unrealistic, untenable and inhospitable to life in suburbs as we know it. A group of twentysomethings held a news conference on Long Island last week to promote an organization, Stay on Long Island, whose mission is to make suburban housing more affordable for young people. The next day, a columnist for Newsday reminded readers that the recent carbon-monoxide deaths of tenants in West Babylon in what appeared to be slumlord apartments were an obvious symptom of the housing shortage, which has forced untold numbers of poor people to crowd into unsafe, unsightly, dilapidated apartments.

In Johnny Mercer’s song, the meeting of irresistible force and immovable object leads to happy romance. In the real world, like the New York suburbs, the irreconcilable clash of housing demand and Nimbyism leads to a painful standoff, and to people ricocheting off to points north, south and west of here. That is a recipe for economic ruin and decay, and the reason that Mr. Levy, Mr. Morgo and their counterparts across the region are struggling to persuade local communities, gently but insistently, to finally face up to the problem and fix it.
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Prior to posting this blog, we visited StayOnLongIsland.com. We attempted to click on the link, What the future holds. Nothing happened. We hope this wasn't prophetic. . .
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There are stirrings in the State Legislature -- notably, the Assembly -- on affordable housing measures along the lines called for by the Levy/Morgo proposal. We will keep you abreast of all developments.
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Chanukah begins tonight at sundown. A happy Chanukah to all who celebrate. May the spirit of these festive lights burn bright throughout the year (and may the cost of oil needed to keep those lights burning be much less prohibitive).

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