NewsdayTV's Macy Egeland and Newsday reporter Craig Schneider talk about possible solutions to Long Island's cost of living crisis. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas; Newsday archive

Imagine a Long Island where housing, taxes, transportation and child care were more affordable. It's not easy to do, but planners and experts say they're finding ways to chip away at these issues, even as they lament the current state as a crisis that threatens the Island's future.

Planners say solutions — or at least signs of progress — are in the works or on the board. They praised the pockets of affordable housing that have gone up in Port Jefferson, Islip, East Hampton, Bay Shore and Westbury. They pointed to the state's 2012 measure that capped yearly tax increases for school districts and municipalities. And child care advocates say the state is doing more to address those expenses, such as raising the income limit so more parents can qualify for subsidies.

But planners, experts and officials agree that there is no sweeping solution that will suddenly make Long Island a more affordable place to live. There are too many challenges — limited land availability, restrictive zoning, a demand for high-quality services and, as one planner phrased it, some Islanders' desire to live around people with whom they identify.

If the Island doesn't step up, “The future will be like today, only worse," said Martin Cantor, director of the Long Island Center for Socio-Economic Policy. "Young people are leaving. Businesses are leaving. We’re in danger of losing our middle class, and we can’t survive without a middle class.”

EDITOR'S NOTE

Through scores of interviews with experts and Long Island families, Newsday’s Feeling the Squeeze series gives insight into why the region is so expensive and explains the financial toll that comes with living here. From struggles to afford child care, to the burdens of high housing costs and more, these stories impact Long Islanders of all backgrounds and walks of life.

At the forefront is housing, which is expensive and can be hard to find.

Eric Alexander, director of Vision Long Island, a downtown planning group, said about 10,000 multifamily housing units are in the approval pipeline on Long Island, and that state law mandates 10% — or 1,000 units — be affordable.

But the average home price on the Island, excluding the East End, is not so affordable: about $600,000, compared to the national average of $350,000, according to real estate marketplace firm Zillow. Next, there are the property taxes, which are among the highest in the country, averaging about $12,000, far higher than the national average of $4,000, according to real estate data firm ATTOM Data Solutions.

Some Islanders then must factor in child care, which can set a family back $12,000 to $20,000 a year per child, providers say.

Young people are leaving, businesses are leaving. We’re in danger of losing our middle class, and we can’t survive without a middle class.

— Martin Cantor, director of the Long Island Center for Socio-Economic Policy

Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Need for worker, senior housing

Finding economical housing is among the biggest obstacles to living on Long Island. Just ask Vincent Hartmann.

Hartmann, 33, who's married with a child, grew up on Long Island and wants to buy a home here so he can live around family and friends and grow his family. The EMT, who also works as a hospital manager of post-acute care, said he's looking for a house costing about $400,000 but can't find one that works for less than $600,000.

Essentially, Hartmann cannot afford the luxury of living in the place he grew up, and he sees Long Island morphing into a kind of Manhattan of the suburbs, reserved for those with a measure of wealth.

"Everything is just skyrocketing. We're overbidding on homes we really can't afford," Hartmann said, adding that gas, food and other costs also have risen.

"Long Island needs to ease the taxes for residents, build more apartments, more housing," he added.

Many Islanders have a dim view of "affordable housing." But planners and experts say they’ve seen some success by gearing housing as such toward workers and senior citizens. Some developers pitch their plans as "workforce housing" in an attempt to rebrand them. They're also placing them in rundown areas that need redevelopment, and spaces near transit hubs.

Port Jefferson Crossing, for example, is a 45-unit development of affordable housing that opened last year. The building is steps from the Long Island Rail Road’s Port Jefferson station and is part of a broader effort to revitalize the surrounding area.

Alexander said he sees some evolution in Islanders' attitudes about affordable housing. Affordable housing doesn't just mean big housing projects filled with poor, unemployed people. It means housing for service workers, senior citizens and young Islanders looking to make a stake here.

But Alan Singer, an Island historian and head of social studies programs at Hofstra University, said he doesn't see much support here.

"I don’t see the evidence for support," Singer said. "Have local politicians endorsed [Gov. Kathy] Hochul’s proposal?"

He was referring to Hochul's big push for more affordable housing. The State Legislature in March shot down her first proposal, which called for the creation of 800,000 affordable housing units across the state, with Long Island as a particular target. That plan would have given the state the power to overrule local zoning decisions.

Hochul since has revised the plan, removing the ability for the state to override local zoning, and offering a carrot versus a stick. Communities that show they are expanding affordable housing can qualify for a slice of $650 million in statewide funding, she said.

Affordable housing on Long Island often appears in dribs and drabs. Much of what has been built here has been born of necessity — to provide homes for local workers, seniors and young people, Cantor said.

The East End of Long Island, long an enclave for wealthy celebrities, is in desperate need of housing for year-round residents at low and moderate incomes. Many who work in the local service industry simply cannot afford to live there, so they commute hours to their jobs, said Catherine Casey, executive director of the East Hampton Housing Authority.

Several projects featuring "workforce housing" have either been built or approved, such as the Three Mile project in East Hampton, a 50-unit development that started construction last summer and should be done around the end of the year, she said.

Catherine Casey, of the East Hampton Housing Authority, said many...

Catherine Casey, of the East Hampton Housing Authority, said many who work in the local service industry simply cannot afford to live on the East End. She is shown at the Three Mile housing development being built for workers in East Hampton. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

The East Hampton Housing Authority and Georgica Green Ventures are developing the $33 million project. The state is providing $18 million in tax credits and a mix of state and federal funds, Casey said.

The East Hampton Housing Authority has built 180 units of affordable housing since 1993, Casey said.

Suffolk officials recently announced that applications are open for its Down Payment Assistance Program, in which income-eligible homeowners are provided up to $30,000 in federal money toward the down payment on a single-family residence.

The amount is more than double the previous assistance offered of $14,000, officials said. The county doubled the amount, partly because of rising housing costs in the county.

Top Long Island schools? There's a cost

Long Islanders face a challenging conundrum when it comes to high taxes: They want top-quality schools, police protection, roads and parks — but somebody has to pay for all that.

"There's always a cost. If you want premium, there's an additional cost," said John Cameron, chairman of the Long Island Regional Planning Council.

There's always a cost. If you want premium, there's an additional cost.

— John Cameron, chairman of the Long Island Regional Planning Council

Planners and economists say they see some past initiatives, some occurring now and some ideas for the future that could ease the tax burden on Long Islanders.

School taxes make up about 60% of Islanders' property tax bill, but it's not an area where many Islanders want to skimp. Island schools are routinely ranked among the best in the nation.

One of the biggest breaks came in 2012 when the state limited increases in school and municipal budgets to 2% a year, or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. 

"That has throttled their ability to drive up costs," said Richard Murdocco, a Stony Brook adjunct professor of land use and environmental policy.

Senior citizens and low-income homeowners benefit from tax assistance programs such as partial tax exemptions, Cantor said.

Cantor said the Island could save money by consolidating some of its 124 school districts, asserting that will save money by thinning bureaucracy and combining services. Critics worry that such consolidation would suck power away from parents and students.

Long Island has 13 towns, two cities and 95 villages, each with its own land-use policies. Consolidating villages would offer little savings because so many positions would need to remain, Cantor said. The salaries of village mayors, who might not be needed in a consolidation, are too small to amount to much in savings, he said.

"It's nickel and diming," Cantor said. Besides, he added, "Local government has its value. People want local control."

Cantor, who is also an economist, suggested replacing the local school taxes on Long Island with a regional income tax. Such a system would be based on a person's income as opposed to the value of their home. That would be fairer in that people who earn more would pay more, he said.

“What’s happened in the last 30 years is that the values of homes has grown exponentially, but the wages have not followed suit,” Cantor said. A regional income tax "would make housing affordable.”

Substituting the property tax with an income tax would be a major shift in taxation, said Richard Auxier, a senior policy associate with the Tax Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Property taxes tend to be stable, whereas income tax can vary from year to year, depending on the economy and how much people spend, he said. He could not name one place that has swapped out a property tax for an income tax.

Nassau County lawmakers offered some tax relief last year. They approved a plan that almost doubled the income limit for seniors and disabled people to receive up to a 50% exemption from their property tax assessments. The new income limit is $50,000.

Suffolk County lawmakers, for their part, haven't raised property taxes for the past two years.

New Jersey recently approved a program to cut in half senior citizens' property tax bills. Under the program, known as StayNJ, any homeowner 65 and older with an annual income of $500,000 or less would be eligible.

While some New Jersey state officials praised the plan for providing much-needed tax relief, Peter Chen, a policy analyst with New Jersey Policy Perspective, criticized the move in the group's report on the plan. He said the plan would direct the largest benefits to wealthy households, worsen the racial wealth gap, and come with a big price tag "at a time when the state can ill afford it."

Cameron, of the planning council, said attracting more companies to Long Island could help the tax problem, shifting the burden more to the commercial base. To accomplish that, he suggested more tax incentives and grants for businesses, as well as more investment in community infrastructure such as sewers.

"What we don't grow on the commercial side will fall back on the residential," Cameron said.

Nassau approved a 99-year lease agreement in May that would allow Las Vegas Sands to develop a $4 billion casino resort on the Coliseum site. But it's not a done deal, as Sands now needs several additional approvals, including an environmental review, for the development to move forward.

New York State helping more with child care

Long Island's child care woes are a good example of how affordability issues overlap in people's lives, each affecting others, Cameron said. The high costs of child care have kept many mothers out of the workforce, causing a drag on the local economy. If costs were mitigated, these women could find work and help their family's finances and the local economy, he said.

"Women say, 'I can't work just to pay somebody to watch my kids. So, let's move South,' " where life is more affordable, he said.

Island child care providers and advocates say the system faces many hurdles to lightening the cost burden. They talk about the need for universal child care — in which the government pays much of the costs, not unlike public schools — but advocates say few if any places around the country provide it.

Critics of universal child care worry about the price tag and potential for ballooning bureaucracy.

"We don't think anything will happen on the federal level regarding universal child care," said Jennifer Rojas, executive director of the Child Care Council of Suffolk County. "Congress is not an easy place to get things done."

The pandemic thrust the issue of child care to the front burner, as parents scrambled to find care for kids who were learning remotely at home. Advocates say they see the state starting to do more to help parents struggling with child care costs, such as expanding child care to more families by raising the income limit on eligibility.

Some employers provide workers with child care help, but they are few and far between here, she said.

Jennifer Reyes, a divorced mother of four, said she takes advantage of a child care program offered by her employer, Northwell Health. The nurse educator uses the "backup child care program," in which each of Northwell's 85,000 workers can request up to 15 days in which Northwell will send a child care worker to their home, even at the last minute. The employee pays a $6-an-hour copay.

Reyes said, "I had a conference in Manhattan. I set up the sitter two days before. … She immediately got along with the kids. She brought activities such as board games and puzzles. It was a nice, easy handoff."

While the state provides child care subsidies for some low-income families, the majority of Islanders don't qualify, Rojas said.

The recently approved state budget expanded child care eligibility to 113,000 more families by raising the income limit to the maximum allowed by federal law. The limit is 85% of New York’s median income, or approximately $93,200 per year for a family of four, officials said. 

Rojas said she hopes the state chooses Long Island for an Employer-Sponsored Child Care pilot program. The pilot will operate in three regions around the state and will split the cost of child care between employers, the state and participating employees.

"We need to find public funding that can be invested in a way that every family has access," she said.

We need to find public funding that can be invested in a way that every family has access.

— Jennifer Rojas, executive director of the Child Care Council of Suffolk County

Making transit appealing, safe 

To be blunt, now is not a good time to talk about making transportation cheaper on Long Island, planners say. The MTA is moving forward on a fare increase — including on the Long Island Rail Road — of about 4% in late August. Bridge and tunnel tolls will rise by 6% for drivers paying via E-ZPass on Aug. 6.

Beyond that, New York City plans to implement congestion pricing around May of next year, charging vehicles traveling into or within the central business district of Manhattan.

Making auto travel more economical comes full of hurdles.

"We are so entrenched in our auto culture," Cantor said. "So many of the expenses — the car, fuel, insurance, labor and parts — are out of the control of the average Long Islander."

Still, there's value in making train and bus service more convenient, reliable and safe, thereby increasing the lure of transit travel, said Tiffany-Ann Taylor, vice president for transportation for the Regional Plan Association.

Enticing people onto mass transit could help with traffic congestion. Congested roads drive up freight, trucking and labor costs, Cantor noted. 

Planners pointed to the LIRR's new 10-mile-long Third Track through Nassau. 

The Island's bus system — which riders say needs more routes, especially those heading north and south — is seeing some improvements.

Suffolk has reconfigured bus routes and will have them operating seven days a week with extended weekday hours from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., starting this fall, county spokeswoman Marykate Guilfoyle said. The new network will increase access for carless households by 53% and access for low-income residents by 60%, she said.

"I don't think all the answers are about making the dollar costs less," Taylor said. "A better running transportation system is an economic benefit."

What happens if Long Island doesn't do enough to bring down the costs of housing, child care, taxes and transportation?

Murdocco, the Stony Brook adjunct professor, said the Island would become more of an enclave for the rich. There would be less economic and racial diversity. There are still going to be good schools and services, he said.

But costs will escalate.

"If you used to pay $15 an hour for a babysitter, expect it to be $35," he said.

As for Hartmann and his family, who are living in the downstairs of his parent's split-level in Hauppauge, he said he's giving his house hunt another year before he looks to move to another state.

"We're looking to have another child. We need more space," he said. "Our politicians and government officials need to wake up and decide the future of Long Island."

Newsday wants to hear from Long Islanders about how they face the region's cost of living. Tell us your story here.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Planners and economic experts say there's no magic bullet to making Long Island more affordable. But the Island is finding ways to chip away at issues such as high-priced housing, taxes and child care.
  • Planners say they see attitudes changing regarding affordable housing, that it is not just sprawling housing projects filled with unemployed people. Well-planned developments can provide much-needed housing for workers, seniors and young people.
  • Child care advocates say the state is doing more to address these expenses, such as raising the income limit for parents who qualify for subsidies.

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