County’s housing plan for Horton families hits a snag

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | It took more than a week for flood waters on Horton Avenue to subside last spring. About a dozen houses were ruined.

Earlier this year, the county Legislature approved a bill that would have given victims of natural disasters — like the flood victims on Horton Avenue in Riverhead — preference for qualifying for an affordable housing program.

But then county officials realized what little good the bill would do for the displaced Riverhead families.

The measure only applied to land that was given to Riverhead Town by Suffolk County for use in affordable housing through what’s known as a 72H program, according to Legislator Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches).

“And it turns out, there are no 72H properties in Riverhead Town that are suitable for affordable housing,” Mr. Romaine said in an interview Thursday. “So we spent a year, in my view, not really moving forward at all.”

He said there are only a few such properties in town and some are already being rehabbed for other uses, while others are actually in flood zones.

In March 2010, a three-day storm inundated the Horton Avenue neighborhood with muddy brown water, soaking possessions, warping walls and creating a haven for mold in some homes. Residents were denied individual FEMA grants because not enough people in the region were affected to meet federal guidelines. So town, state and county officials had been searching for another permanent solution.

After recognizing the problems with the 72H program, a meeting was held March 25 with town and county officials and Horton Avenue flood victims. At that meeting, it was decided the county would try to work with a nonprofit housing group to buy property on which to build new homes for the Horton Avenue victims using county affordable housing money, which can be used to buy property and build infrastructure, Mr. Romaine said.

“We’re talking about five homes here,” he said. “Let’s contract with a nonprofit housing corporation and give them the money, and get them to buy the land the land and build the infrastructure, such as roads and drainage.

“From there, we would coordinate with Riverhead Town, which would subdivide the land and do the site plan.”

Under the plan, flood victims would then be eligible to buy those properties at a price below market value.

Mr. Romaine said the proposal would only address about five homes and the lots would be no bigger than a quarter acre, which is about what the Horton Avenue lots are.

So a parcel of land that is less than two acres but bigger than an acre and a half is all that would be needed, he said. The town would have to approve a downzoning since there are few areas in town where housing lots as small as a quarter-acre housing are still permitted, he said. And, the five homes would all be built on the same subdivided property so the homeowners would still live near their Horton Avenue neighbors, he said.

“All we need is approximately two acres or less in order to do this,” he said. “It’s not going to cost a lot of money.”

In addition, while the county would have to formally seek proposals from non-profit housing corporations for the job, the Long Island Housing Partnership has offered to do the work for free, Mr. Romaine said.

“I estimate that this should take between 12 and 14 months,” he said.

Mr. Romaine was hoping County Executive Steve Levy would have issued a certificate of necessity to allow the resolution outlining this proposal to be voted on at Tuesday’s meeting, but no such certificate came forward, he said. Representatives of the county executive’s office were present at the March 25 meeting, he said, and the plan at that time was to have the resolution in place for the April 26 meeting.

Without it, the resolution will have to go through the Legislature’s committee process, Mr. Romaine said. It will be discussed by the Legislature’s Labor, Workforce and Affordable Housing Committee next Thursday in Hauppauge, and barring revisions, should be on the full Legislature’s agenda on May 10, Mr. Romaine said.

“But if it gets hung up in committee and people have questions or make revisions, it could take longer,” he said.

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