Viewpoint: Great Neck needs creative affordable housing ideas

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By Karen Rubin

There is a reason why home ownership has always been central to the American Dream of upward mobility. And in a country where zip code largely determines not only your lifetime earnings but your life expectancy, a deplorable legacy of federal laws actually mandating segregation (as in Levittown, America’s first suburban development) while barring African- Americans from access to GI benefits and low-interest mortgages, have not only contributed to the perpetuation of generational poverty but resulted in Long Island having the most racially segregated neighborhoods in the country.

I was struck by the comment at the Meet the Candidates night with James Wu, Harold Citron and Julia Shields, when a woman praised Shields for her work protecting tenants rights in Great Neck. Growing up in Great Neck and attending Great Neck’s lauded public schools enabled her and her family to rise into the middle class.

But getting straight to the point: Suburban communities must necessarily have a different approach to solving the affordable housing challenge from urban communities. Suburbia, including the Greater Great Neck community, has a societal responsibility as well as self-interest to address affordable housing as a component of the community.

And the reason is largely because of our collective well-being. Long Island is the birthplace of Suburbia and has reached a point of maturation and even mortality requiring reinvention. The housing issue is at the heart. If people can’t afford to live here, businesses can’t find workers, economic development suffers and homeowners will never be able to get ahead of crushing property taxes.

At the recent Vision Long Island Smart Growth Awards, County Executive Laura Curran noted Nassau is at a turning point. “A study showed that 67 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds planned to leave Long Island in the next five years because they can’t afford to stay. We must act now to address this problem head-on, reverse the brain drain and keep young people.”

The Town of Southampton was honored for its affordable housing solution that might shock people in North Hempstead (considering the reaction when then-Supervisor Jon Kaiman proposed it a decade ago): accessory housing. The town did not just liberalize the code to permit homeowners to create an accessory rental apartment, but actually recruits homeowners and is moving next to help homeowners finance the work.

“When the workforce is priced out, when teachers, social workers, people you need to function, can’t live here, when a plot of vacant land goes for over $1 million, you lose the sense of community,” said Southhampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman. “Rather than wait, we went out to find homes that could benefit a single mom or a senior citizen. We asked residents to create the apartment and we would help. We’re all in this together to make the community a better place to live.”

What should Great Neck’s solution be? The solutions here are as different as the nine villages that inhabit our peninsula, but some issues, such as revitalizing Middle Neck Road and improved transportation, should be dealt with collectively= through the Great Neck Village Officials Association.

Clearly, for Great Neck Plaza it is transit-oriented development – higher density mixed-use projects which can accommodate young people, workforce housing and seniors who want to downsize for their single-family homes.

The Village of Great Neck, the biggest in population and area, is further from the railroad station but still could create a transit-oriented development strategy by better linking to the railroad station and promoting environmentally friendly, aesthetically pleasing, sustainable, mixed-use projects in place of those dilapidated, one-story commercial strips designed to enhance — not detract from — the character of the village. So could Kensington and Great Neck Estates along their stretch.

For Great Neck Estates, Russell Gardens and Thomaston, the solution might be to promote home-sharing (New York City actually has a service that matches people — possibly Project Independence could do the same), which could enable a young couple, for example, or a single parent or another single senior to live in the home so an elderly person doesn’t live alone.  It might be a rental with a future first-right of purchase.

The conundrum, of course, for Suburbia and for the Great Neck Peninsula, particularly, is the contradiction with the higher densities that go along with “affordability.” But there are places where there can be extra density (the traffic issue alleviated by a new bus or van service along a rebuilt Middle Neck Road and zip cars for buildings of a certain size). In a percentage of units that are either rent-stabilized (under state and even village law) or at an affordable rent, people who had housing vouchers (based on income or a key job like teacher, health care worker or first responder) could apply them to market rent. That would provide healthy diversity to a community.

If you look at what is being done in other villages on Long Island, you will see plenty of these sorts of developments that have revitalized their communities and strengthened the economic base with aesthetically pleasing projects that fit the character of their environs while enhancing quality of life.

Since Baby Boomers control 70 percent of the disposable income, housing that is attractive to empty nesters would be an economic boon especially if there are Complete Streets improvements, which would expand the consumer base, thereby making retail shops more desirable and increasing the tax base.

What is more, the availability of office/commercial space in the villages may mean more people work within the town rather than commute – that would be appropriate economic revitalization. Imagine living and working a bikeable distance? This would not only benefit the environment, but add quality of life by reducing stress, time and expense of daily commuting.

When we hear the Main Streeters are frustrated at the loss of retail in this age of online shopping, the innovation could be small businesses, incubators, planning and professional firms and the like that would have a minimal adverse impact on our suburban community.

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