Consensus for Affordable Housing on Long Island


Long Island has a pressing need for housing, and the key question is: How can we address it quickly on a regional basis? There must be more varied housing options for all Long Islanders, but the challenge is to provide those choices Island-wide when zoning decisions are made locally. Hopefully, we can build a strong consensus around some key principles, which can then be adopted in enough localities for it to have a region-wide impact.

The need is clear. Too many Long Islanders are struggling with the cost of housing. According to research conducted by the nonprofit Long Island Index, “Over the last 10 years, the number of Long Islanders who say it is difficult to meet their monthly housing costs has risen steadily from 47 percent in 2004 to the current all-time high of 62 percent in 2015.”

The problem affects all ages–from seniors hoping to downsize to recent college graduates trying to live on their own. When young people are moving to the boroughs because they can’t afford LI, you know we have to do something.

The challenge is to think regionally while acting locally. Home rule is one of the Island’s great zoning traditions, but it can stand in the way of regional solutions. Enough communities will need to move in the same direction for the housing situation to change sufficiently. That’s where a consensus can now emerge. Here are three principles for regional consideration:

First, we should maintain our overall commitment to single-family homes, while offering a wider range of housing options. Long Island is renowned for its single-family homes, and we don’t want to lose that recognition. But adding more options is crucial if we are to remain competitive as a place to live and work.

LI has fewer rental properties than our suburban neighbors: 20 percent in Nassau County and 22 percent in Suffolk County, compared to 37 percent in northern New Jersey, for instance, according to the Long Island Index. And we pay more in monthly rent: $1,709 on average for a one-bedroom apartment in Nassau and $1,470 in Suffolk, compared to $1,180 in northern New Jersey.

Second, we should take advantage of the fact that the Long Island Rail Road has 124 stations because they can provide an extraordinary opportunity for transit-oriented development (aka TOD). The resulting housing will have direct access – through the LIRR and the rest of the MTA system – to the entire Greater New York City region.

Here we need to learn from our children and grandchildren, so many of whom now prefer to live in the city because they can avoid having a car. Living within walking distance of public transit, especially when it has the reach of the LIRR, makes owning a car optional and, therefore, dramatically reduces the combined cost of housing and transportation.

Third, we should make a variety of multifamily housing developments around train stations a priority and zone these areas appropriately so that developers can see the opportunities clearly.

Take our example. At the United Way of Long Island, we have a long history of building homes for those with special needs and have recently completed multifamily housing units in several downtowns. We have just finished two properties in Patchogue and Wyandanch, and we plan to complete a property in Huntington Station soon.

If local communities can zone certain properties for multifamily use, then development can progress efficiently. But if a variance is needed, you might as well bring your grandchildren and watch them grow up while the process slowly unfolds.

All too often home rule fragments decision-making on the Island, but we have the advantage of having two counties, which makes coordination relatively easy. We also have region-wide nonprofit organizations, which can play a prominent role in building the consensus that we now need.

Long Island has taken far too long to adapt to our changing housing needs, but we may be at a point where a consensus can now emerge so we can address the problem broadly enough if we implement this approach sufficiently on a local basis. The 124 LIRR stations and transit-oriented development hold the key.

Boiled down to seven letters, these three principles spell LIRR TOD. Imagine a future when thriving transit-oriented developments across Long Island’s downtowns are linked to the entire Greater New York City region while they also fuel vibrant employment and entertainment hubs that support Long Island’s tradition of single-family homes.

It can be an exciting future, if we provide the consensus to make LIRR TOD happen.

Theresa A. Regnante, a resident of Islip, is president & chief executive officer of the United Way of Long Island.

Illustration by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Walt Handelsman