Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone shakes hands with Long Island...

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone shakes hands with Long Island Builders Institute CEO Mitch Pally after he signs off on a bill approving county funding for the long-stalled East Northport housing project Matinecock Court, on Dec. 4, 2019, at Long Island Builders Institute in Islandia. Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

I was fresh out of college when I began reporting at Newsday more than 20 years ago. My first beat: residential real estate.

It was early in my tenure when I first heard the refrain.

“Just look at East Northport.”

The first time someone said that, it was during a conversation about affordable housing. Why, I’d ask, is it so hard to build apartments that are affordable? Why can’t we create walkable communities, perhaps even not far from a train station?

“Just look at East Northport.”

Those who said it were referring to a proposed development at the corner of Elwood and Pulaski roads that was to feature affordable rental and homeownership units on 15 acres of land, less than a mile from the Northport train station.

Anyone who had anything to do with housing on Long Island knew about the project, now known as Matinecock Court. The proposed development dated to 1978, when it was to be entirely affordable rental units. I was 3 years old. By the time I was in first grade, the Town of Huntington had rejected the proposal, amid community objections often tinged with racial discrimination, and the NAACP and Housing Help, a nonprofit that’s been involved since the beginning, sued. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court which, in 1989, upheld previous rulings that town decisions violated the Fair Housing Act. 

Years of legal fights and deals made and lost followed, all with the constant drumbeat of neighbors saying "no." When I got to Newsday in 1997, the project had become the prime example of how, and why, affordable housing wasn’t built here.

Eventually, lawsuits were settled, changes were made that made the project a mix of rental and ownership, and zoning was approved. Meanwhile, in recent years, Long Island has had some affordable housing success stories. But the region was still far from where it needed to be, and Matinecock Court continued to stand as a symbol of inaction and community pushback.

Even late last month, as the Suffolk County Legislature prepared to vote on the funding necessary to break ground, objections remained.

“The Old Nightmare is Baaaack,” a Huntington Republican Committee social media post proclaimed.

Luckily, for those who'd like to rent or buy in Huntington, the legislature voted yes, and County Executive Steve Bellone signed the funding bill. Advocates celebrated, saying that perhaps Matinecock Court was just the beginning.

It won't be easy. The arguments against affordable housing developments on Long Island are ongoing. Even the racial undertones, while perhaps less obvious, remain.

So, Matinecock Court's success can and must encourage a larger conversation, one about how the region does zoning and planning, and how far more communities can open their doors to affordable apartments and other types of housing.

At the least, the development itself might make a difference in how affordable housing is perceived.

After the bill signing, Long Island Builders Institute chairman Sal Ferro, who heads Alure Home Improvements in East Meadow, called the moment a "turning point."

Now, he said, people will have something to point to, that shows that affordable housing, even after 40 years of fighting, isn't ugly, or frightening, or even traffic-inducing.

Instead, it's just housing for 146 Long Island individuals and families.

Then Ferro echoed something I had heard so many times before —but with a different spin.

"We'll be able to say 'Just look at East Northport!' " Ferro said.

And instead of the discouraging, dismissive tone I had heard in the past, Ferro smiled.

Because now, East Northport could be an example of why affordable housing here is possible, rather than the example of why it is not.

Randi F. Marshall is a member of Newsday's editorial board.