The Town of Huntington moved a step closer last week to clearing the way for the great-granddaddy of stalled affordable housing projects on Long Island. By approving a conditional site plan, town leaders gave a tentative go-ahead to a development that has been in the works since Jimmy Carter was president.
The brainchild of a racially mixed, integration-minded group of Huntington church members, the plan was to include low-income housing that would help integrate the mostly white neighborhood.
It was a radical notion in a town where rental housing, by law, was confined to black neighborhoods in Huntington Station.
"We wanted to have open housing," Bob Ralph, 86, one of the original group, said Monday, noting that it took decades for the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to see their work have any major impact.
"Long Island now is the third most segregated area in the country and it is not changing," said Ralph. "We have been trying to change that and it is hard."
The proposal's history includes a slew of legal fights against the town and New York State, two of which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"It has been a long and sometimes ugly process," said Susan Lagville, Housing Help's executive director. Along the way, however, "We changed the discriminatory zoning in Huntington."
Ronald Reagan was president when the Supreme Court first ruled that the town's ordinance limiting rental properties to a mostly African-American community was racially discriminatory. Still, the project was not built.
George W. Bush was president when Housing Help in 2002 settled a separate lawsuit against New York State, which, because of continued vociferous local opposition, refused to release funding for the development.
"To move the ball down the field, it required compromise," said Jim Morgo, who helped negotiate the settlement that reduced the number of units in the development and changed it from being all rental to half owner-occupied. "There were several compromises here," he said.
Morgo, a former deputy Suffolk County executive who ran the Long Island Housing Partnership at the time, received death threats and was forced to move out of his home temporarily. "If you bring those to East Northport," one of many callers barked into his answering machine, "We will kill you."
As part of the settlement, the town agreed to move the project along. Still, it took three years - an unusually long time - for the proposal's environmental impact statement to make its way through the town bureaucracy.
And even then, the statement, released in 2007, included a suggestion for another compromise - that Housing Help give Northport residents and emergency service workers priority in getting the housing.
"We told them we couldn't do it," Lagville said, "because it is not allowed in projects that get monies from the federal and state government."
As it is, such "set asides" - which would effectively have perpetuated racial segregation - already are under scrutiny by the U.S. Justice Department and the state Division of Human Rights in two developments that received zoning authority from the Town of Oyster Bay.
Frank Petrone, Huntington Town's supervisor, said he supports the East Northport project, which he said would pull from a town, unlike Oyster Bay, that already has a variety of racially diverse neighborhoods.
Besides, he said, noting the lessons of a three-decade fight for Housing Help's development: "Will everyone be happy? No. But over time, the thinking has changed. Everybody knows we need affordable housing. If I had supported this 10 years ago, I would have been voted out of office."
So, will the development ever be built? If Housing Help can arrange the financing and win the final permits, Lagville said, it could be by 2011 or 2012.
No one will be sure about the depth of the commitment to build until shovels are in the ground. Hopefully that will come before the next presidential election.