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OPINION: Long Island towns need a real plan for housing

Michael Watt is the executive vice president of the Long Island Builders Institute.

This month has marked a changing of the guard in three of Long Island's towns (Riverhead, Southampton and East Hampton), as well as in Nassau County, but the reverberations can be felt throughout the region. The message is clear: Maintain our quality of life without raising taxes.

The best way to do this is through economic development. By increasing the number of businesses contributing to the government's coffers and maintaining a thriving business environment, an elected official can mitigate the pressure placed on residential taxpayers.

But you can't have a healthy business climate without an adequate workforce, and you can't have an adequate workforce without adequate housing. And most towns here fall short of meeting the housing needs of residents who don't fall into the "single family" category.

These problems are manifestations of passive-aggressive supervisors who present themselves as proactive on economic development but placate the anti-development forces in their towns by failing to have specific housing plans in place.

Over the course of last year, my organization asked several town supervisors on Long Island about their housing goals for their municipalities. Not one had an answer. Since then, a couple have set the wheels in motion to create goals.

We plan on asking again this year. If we don't get some specific answers, then the only conclusion to draw is that Long Island will continue on the same track that brought us where we are today: a region of nearly 3 million residents with a wholly inadequate housing mix.

It's in the best interest of our town supervisors to determine the housing needs of their constituents and act accordingly. If they don't adapt to the ever-changing needs of the people they serve, they'll suffer long-term and painful consequences.

Sixty years ago, Long Island was ill-prepared to handle the veterans returning from World War II and ready to start families. If there was a plan back then, nobody followed it - and as a result, Long Island transitioned from an agricultural landscape to a suburban hodgepodge where the only commonality among communities was an unhealthy dependence on the automobile.

Unlike the veterans who fought Town Hall in the late 1940s and got the changes necessary to allow for the housing they needed, we now have a generation of Long Islanders voting with their feet: From 1990 to 2006, we lost 35 percent of our 25- to 34-year-olds, according to the Long Island Index.

Why are they leaving? Because the widely spaced single family homes that were so attractive to their parents and their parents' parents hold as much interest for Long Island's young people as a PBS special on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

That's not to say that these young folks will never want a home to call their own. What you hate about Long Island when you're in your 20s you love about it once you settle down. The trick is to keep these people here as they mature.

This group is so important because Long Island's companies won't stay if they can't grow, and they can't grow if they don't have a workforce to support that growth. Once we start losing companies to the regions that woo them regularly, our whole economy will crumble.

We also need to accommodate the folks who no longer need those houses that were built in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Ironically, the needs of both cohorts can be met with a housing mix that includes multifamily dwellings built within a reasonable walking distance of downtown shopping areas.

That's why it is incumbent upon our town supervisors - both newly elected and firmly entrenched - to ascertain what their constituents need and where they need it. Then they must expedite the processes for the building community. In other words, make a plan. Come up with housing goals that will serve all Long Islanders and a timeline to make it happen.


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