Jim Morgo, former chief executive of the Long Island Housing Partnership, is chairman of the Suffolk County IDA.
When Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone asked Patchogue Mayor Paul Pontieri about his election chances, Pontieri answered, "What's the worst that could happen? I could lose." Bellone replied, "You don't get it; all of Long Island is watching your race." Bellone was right; the future of investment in Long Island's downtowns was at stake.
Throughout Long Island, Pontieri has been lauded for the renaissance of his once forlorn and blighted village. Newsday has reported that politicians at all levels of government call him an "avatar of smart growth." Former County Executive Pat Halpin said a Pontieri loss would have "set back downtown revitalization for a decade."
Hundreds of new homes have been built in Patchogue's downtown. They connect with new and old businesses and entertainment opportunities, including new restaurants and the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts, to create a vibrant village center.
Pontieri's opponents in last week's election ran a no-holds-barred campaign of fear against the $100-million redevelopment of the Four Corners, the long-abandoned and empty heart of the Patchogue community, with its 291 mostly market-rate rentals and commercial and retail space.
Village voters were inundated with mailings threatening that Patchogue would become Queens and Brooklyn, and the new apartments would "become Section 8 dominated." At community meetings, residents were warned the project would burden local schools with expensive children. I spoke to many residents who said they loved the mayor and the transformation he had accomplished, but they were uneasy about the 291 apartments.
Yet Pontieri won big, with nearly 60 percent of the vote. Was it because the majority realized that young professionals are transforming Queens and Brooklyn through downtowns like Astoria, Long Island City, Williamsburg and Carroll Gardens, which generate tax dollars and lower tax rates? Or did they see that Long Island's downtowns can be economic engines like urban downtowns, but have the added benefits of close-by single-family neighborhoods and open spaces? Maybe the multifamily homes that began the downtown renewal -- Copper Beech, Artspace and Bay Village -- supplied the confidence for Pontieri's vision, and voters realized a $100 million private investment in their downtown was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Or maybe some looked west and saw the turnaround of Bay Shore, accomplished through a mix of niche retail, offices, public spaces, entertainment venues and well-designed high density homes.
Evidence shows that multifamily housing generates far fewer school-age kids than detached single-family homes, and that multifamily complexes almost always provide more tax revenue than they cost in services. Yet the same old myths about housing density are repeated throughout Long Island. They are being used to fight Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko's attempt to save the Carmans River by directing development away from the river and from single-family neighborhoods to downtowns and commercial areas, and to stop efforts to revitalize Huntington Station with upscale multifamily homes. These misperceptions are why rentals make up less than 20 percent of Long Island's homes -- a much lower percentage than in wealthier Westchester County and the Connecticut suburbs. And that's a major reason we're losing our young and empty-nesters.
People who don't trust the data should visit the thriving rentals in Brookhaven -- Charles Pond, Atlantic Point, The Pines and many others -- and judge for themselves. These complexes offer well-designed, quality apartments that are home to young professionals and seniors. These rentals have replaced blight and revitalized the surrounding communities.
For the sake of Long Island's future, proposals for multifamily homes should be judged based on objective evidence. The New Village redevelopment at Patchogue's Four Corners will become another shining example of rental homes' positive impact on a community and on all of Long Island -- and another example for the doubters to visit.