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North East considers tools to create affordable housing

NORTH EAST — Introduced by North East town Supervisor Chris Kennan, planner Nan Stolzenburg of Community Planning and Environmental Associates (CPEA) spoke to the community about “what tools towns actually have to encourage or incentivize housing and housing construction, particularly workforce and affordable housing,” explained Kennan the next day. It was the first housing meeting actually hosted by the town.

All members of the Town Board were present, along with those volunteering for the town and upward of 30 members of the public. The communities of Pine Plains, Amenia and Stanford were also invited to participate at the Saturday morning, Sept. 17, talk held at the NorthEast-Millerton Library Annex.

A Zoom link was distributed to those who couldn’t attend in person, and a video of the talk may be posted online shortly. The discussion was pertinent to small, rural communities — most of which are dealing with the challenges of creating workforce and affordable housing.

Stoltzenburg has a long history of working with Harlem Valley towns and villages; she recently helped review the Town of Washington’s Comprehensive Plan. She and her team have a vast knowledge of the complexities of how to manage growing populations in rural areas — a challenge made even more difficult by the lack of affordable housing options.

Kennan described the meeting after the fact.

“It was basically a very dense meeting; somebody described it as a ‘firehose of information.’” He added that there have been many meetings where people talk about the need for more housing, but said more is needed.

“We got that; we understand that,” he said. “We can’t build more housing, with the town’s budget we can probably build two houses — and the roads wouldn’t be plowed and we would have to close Town Hall — but we could build two houses. Obviously I’m being sarcastic.”

North East clearly struggles to supply all who want to reside in the town with affordable residences. In the last three or four years, all of Dutchess County, which has a number of rural communities, has likewise grappled the growing population.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of former city dwellers have migrated north in search of affordable housing. The housing inventory is slim, though.

Stolzenburg said a lot of zoning laws work against expanding space for additional dwellings. For instance, some communities require 3 acres of land on which to build a dwelling. Others have restrictions against multi-family dwellings, or even height restrictions for new homes. Zoning codes vary from place to place.

Plus, not everyone can afford to buy a home in today’s market; many who could previously are now getting squeezed out by soaring real estate prices, regardless of looking to buy or to rent.

Many long time residents in areas like the Harlem Valley have expressed difficulty maintaining their homes, while other have said that even formerly low-cost neighborhoods, like Harlem, have been gentrified. The development of so many places is both pushing out long time residents and prohibiting new residents from moving in.

Another problem, Stolzenburg said, is when people who work within a community can’t afford to live there, which she said is a frequent problem. Taking a fresh look at how to develop affordable housing could help, she said. One needed change is merely in attitude, noted the planner, who said people oftentimes have the attitude they’re in favor of low-cost housing, but “not in my backyard.”

A key challenge is how to make housing affordable. Several ideas were discussed, including creating more multi-family housing. Huge buildings aren’t necessary, and housing can be creative, like  tiny houses, cottage communities and accessory dwellings.

Funding is another issue. CPEA’s Paul Bengtson discussed ideas for municipalities to obtain funding. They include developing partnerships with builders, developers, not-for-profits and other housing organizations, plus businesses,  Realtors, architects, and government agencies.
Sometimes municipalities own land that can be sold; the monies can then be used to subsidize affordable housing.

Resources like Patterns for Progress, Regional Plan Association, Dutchess County Continuum of Care and Hudson River Housing can connect towns with funders.

Stolzenburg advised leaning on Comprehensive Plans (CP) and zoning.

Incentives can be offered, she said, including public or subsidized housing; Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTS) for developers;  waived or reduced application fees; sewer hooks ups; and other services or fees.

Those leading the talk said educating the public through forums and surveys can be key. A transparent process gets more people on board, and leads to a more informed public, they added.

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