A new study – “Home Remedies, Accessory Apartments on Long Island: Lessons Learned” – explores the complex relationship between Long Island and accessory apartments, a housing type that has been used both legally and illegally in a wide range of communities to address the need for affordable housing and the desire of seniors to remain in their homes. A classic accessory apartment is a separate, secondary, dwelling unit of much smaller size than the primary home, either in the house itself or in a carriage house or converted garage.
The need for accessory apartments stems from the fact that Long Island has gone from being one of the most affordable places to raise a family to one of the least affordable. The single-family neighborhoods that defined Long Island’s appeal are now home to shrinking families struggling to cover the costs of all those empty bedrooms, even as the region’s work force faces a shortage of moderately priced rental housing. As a result, single-family homeowners installed an estimated 90,000 illegal apartments by the mid-1980s, according to the Long Island Regional Planning Board.
Accessory apartments have proven their worth as the most affordable type of rental housing in the region. They can be easily accommodated because they don’t require large infusions of capital, new roads, new sewers or expansion of the electrical grid. Instead, existing neighborhoods absorb the rental-seeking population like a sponge, while stabilizing finances for tax-strapped homeowners. They also provide affordable housing that is blended throughout the community rather than clustered, and having a resident homeowner usually means that they are better maintained than rentals with absentee owners.
The study reveals that almost four decades after some Long Island towns began cautiously allowing accessory apartments in single-family homes, this housing type is broadly accepted in Suffolk County, even as it remains controversial in much of Nassau. At the same time, despite any number of crackdowns, amnesties and code changes, both counties continue to contend with rampant illegal apartments whose owners are uninterested in finding ways to be legal. Several jurisdictions have all but resigned themselves to the illegality by assessing extra taxes on presumed scofflaws who refuse to allow inspectors access to their homes. Still, for many Long Islanders accessory apartments are essential, and Long Island’s experience with them holds a key to addressing the need for affordable housing in the future.