Part two in a series, “Plugging the brain drain.”
The lack of affordable housing on Long Island is forcing young adults to leave the area in droves. And as their population decreases and the cost of living keeps increasing, businesses are also taking part in the exodus, damaging the Long Island economy.
According to a poll conducted by the Long Island Index, 69 percent of people 18 to 34 are “somewhat likely” or “very likely” to leave Long Island within the next five years. According to Maritza Silva-Farrell, a community organizer for the Long Island Progressive Coalition, what young people want, more and more, is to live in an area like Huntington Village — an area with shops, restaurants and bars in a walkable area.
The best places to develop more areas like that are in the downtowns that already exist in many Nassau communities. “When you see the sea of parking we have on Long Island, isn’t that a possibility?” said Ann Golob, director of the Long Island Index. “If people would be a little less scared of the possibility of multi-level parking structures — which are ubiquitous throughout the country, but pretty rare on Long Island — there might be some exciting possibilities.”
But restrictions placed by villages and towns on building height and density means that anyone who wants to build an affordable housing complex in a downtown area—or even add on to an existing structure — must apply for a zoning variance, which can be a long, expensive and ultimately futile process.
White-bread Long Island
Keeping communities limited to mainly single-family homes restricts the people who can live in the area, creating homogeneous communities.
In 2000, 62 percent of the homes sold on the Island were priced under $250,000. Just six years later, only 4 percent of homes were. “So while we used to talk about starter homes, now we talk about starter castles on Long Island,” Golob said. “Because the size of the homes, the cost of the homes is completely out of league with what an average person can afford.”
The dearth of affordable housing helps creates homogenous communities. But what many young people want is diversity.
“It’s unfortunate, but people on Long Island don’t really agree with the idea of mixed-income communities,” said Silva-Farrell, whose organization petitions in favor of affordable housing developments at many local government meetings. “And race is a big issue. And that’s why the opposition sometimes tries to use code words to say, ‘We don’t want people who don’t look like me in this community.’”
“There are fewer and fewer people who look for the homogeneity that was a hallmark of Long Island growth in the ’50s and ’60s,” said Golob. “A lot of people fled New York City when integration was being ‘forced upon them’ in the schools, and that helped to create the kind of homogeneity they wanted.
“But that doesn’t work for the future,” she added. “That’s not what the world is about. And that really takes some active work to change.”
Less housing, less business
A lack of affordable housing pushes not only residents away from Long Island, but businesses as well.
With housing costs as high as they are, the cost of living on Long Island is much higher than in other areas. So to pay their workers a livable wage, businesses would have to pay higher salaries — something they can’t always afford.
“And as a result, business aren’t coming here with the kinds of jobs that would fuel the economy, because they know people can’t find homes here,” said Golob. “So a lot of businesses are looking to move elsewhere, where they can pay their work force the kinds of salaries that are supportive to what they need to get their businesses going. And they know the workers would then be able to find housing.”
According to a 2005 report from the Urban Land Institute, communities with affordable housing units were more desirable for businesses. That same study also said that a large and diverse labor pool — two things Long Island isn’t known for — was the most important factor when businesses were choosing where to relocate.
“You find a lot of new businesses going to other areas where there is more affordable housing available,” Golob said. “So the way this problem ricochets and creates other problems in the overall economy is scary.”