Responders to get priority for affordable housing

In a bid to boost the ranks of local fire departments, the Southold Town Board voted last Tuesday to give volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians priority on the town’s affordable housing registry.

For anyone feeling déjà vu, the town’s Housing Advisory Commission did recommend a similar measure in November 2022. However, the original language limited the priority designation to volunteers who already reside in Southold. Legal concerns over the narrow scope ushered in the updated version, which will create a wider pool of essential service members looking for an affordable residence on the North Fork.

“It’s pretty much the same law. The only difference is that the amendment opens up the lottery to any firefighter in good standing in any other Suffolk County town,” said Southold Supervisor Scott Russell. “If they do win a lottery and they do get a housing unit, they would be required to serve one of the local departments, but they can qualify by simply being a member [for] the last three years in good standing with any fire department in Suffolk County. We want to be as inclusive as possible.”

The board’s motion comes at a time when the town is grappling with several housing challenges. Southold’s Community Housing Fund Advisory Board’s recent 81-page draft housing plan documents the town’s limited available housing stock and suggests ways to use monies generated by a voter-approved 0.5% real estate transfer tax to fund housing solutions.

On Tuesday, Aug. 29, the board will also hold a public hearing on proposed updates to town code designed to stiffen penalties for prohibited short-term rentals, which could potentially add to the supply of long-term rental opportunities for Southold residents and workers in need of year-round primary residences. 

The town’s Housing Advisory Commission manages its affordable housing registry — a list that currently counts more than 500 names — to inform residents about potential housing lotteries. Councilwoman Jill Doherty, the commission’s liaison to the Town Board, said the commission supports the board’s vote to prioritize volunteer first responders.

“It’s part of our housing plan,” she said, referring to the CHF Advisory Board’s efforts. “In the housing plan itself, we have what’s called the hero’s grant. And [in addition to firefighters and EMTs] that’s going to incorporate maybe nurses and other paid heroes of the town that can help them to stay here and work here.”

No affordable residential development is currently underway in Southold for which the town’s registry would be used.

“We think it will help, even if we just gain one member it’s a plus for us,” said Greenport Fire Department secretary James Kalin. “The problem is it’s not so much the enlisting, it’s where is this affordable housing? It sounds good, and I’m all in favor of it, but it’s not like there’s 10 units available tomorrow … so it’s going to take a long time. Unfortunately these affordable housing proposals get knocked down one way or the other.”

While generating opportunities for volunteers priced out of the North Fork and constructing affordable units for them could help bolster departments’ ranks, affordable housing is not the only hurdle the volunteer services face in their recruitment efforts. In order for locals to volunteer at their nearby firehouse for the long haul, they must first enroll in a rigorous — but necessary — training regimen.

“The training takes longer and longer now for the volunteers; it takes up a lot of their time,” Mr. Kalin said. “A lot of guys are working two jobs or both members of the household are working jobs, somebody else is doing day care, it’s tough to get the training done. But if they don’t have a place to live, they’re not even going to begin the training.

“We have a lot of young members that live with parents, which is great, until they get married and start a family, and then they have to find a bigger place,” he continued. “And if they can’t find something here, they’re moving away.”