Discouraged by the lack of affordable housing, young people are moving elsewhere
By Alex Costello
Part one in a series, “Plugging the brain drain.”
For the past decade, Long Island has been losing college graduates and young professionals. The high cost of living and lack of affordable housing has forced them to leave the area in droves.
The phenomenon is known as the “brain drain.”
In 2000, 12.86 percent of the population of Long Island was between ages of 25 and 34. By 2008, that had dropped to 9.98 percent. According to the Long Island Index, 22 percent of the population of 25- to 34-year-olds left Long Island in that eight-year period.
“Long Island sends kids away to these great universities, and then they leave,” said Chris Capece, the development director for AvalonBay Communities on Long Island. “They don’t come back.”
The explanation is twofold: First, the cost of living on Long Island is too high for young people to afford. Second, even if they could afford it, many young people don’t want to live here.
“When a kid’s coming out of school, he doesn’t jump in and buy a single-family home. It just doesn’t happen,” said Capece. “So what’s happening is that there are other places where a 23-year-old can get a one-bedroom apartment and live in it. Or a two-bedroom flat and split it with a roommate. That does not exist here on Long Island, and it’s in other places, which is why people are moving to other areas.”
What rental housing there is on Long Island is expensive, by any measure. In 2000, about 55 percent of rentals on the Island cost less than $1,000 a month. By 2006, only 23 percent did. And by 2006, 38 percent of rentals cost over $1,500 a month.
According to Ann Golob, director of the Long Island Index, rentals account for only 17 percent of Long Island housing. In Fairfield County, Connecticut, 28 percent of housing is rentals, and in Westchester County, 37 percent. “We have not built the number of rental units that are typically what a young person can afford,” said Golob. “So it makes us much less affordable. The numbers are very striking.”
The fight for affordable housing
Other than a few isolated pockets in places like Rockville Centre and Long Beach, there is simply not much rental housing on Long Island. “It has to do with … how Long Island has grown,” said Golob. “Where would you be able to put more rental housing?”
According to Capece, the lack of rental housing drives up the price of what does exist — a simple case of supply and demand. And it is extremely difficult for developers to get approval to building new rental units. “There are no parcels of land on Long Island that are already zoned for multi-family development — they don’t exist,” said Capece. “But what you have … are large tracts of land that are zoned for single-family residential homes. So what will happen, and how Long Island has been built up over the years from a residential standpoint, is with single-family subdivisions.”
The reason, Capece explained, is that it’s easier for developers. When buying a parcel of land already zoned for single-family homes, developers have two choices: either build homes or try to get the land rezoned so they can build something else. But a decision to change the zoning is at the discretion of the municipality that has jurisdiction over the area, and residents tend to oppose affordable rental housing when it comes before the boards of their municipalities.
“About three and a half years ago,” said Maritza Silva-Farrell, a community organizer for the Long Island Progressive Coalition, “we realized in our organization, through going to different town board meetings and trying to help to create some affordable housing in the Hamptons, that most of the time the opposition comes out to oppose anything that gets proposed.” To combat the “not in my backyard,” or NIMBY, mentality, the LIPC created a YIMBY campaign (for “yes in my backyard”). It is a group of people, including members of unions and civic organizations, who go to board meetings and petition in favor affordable housing.
Many observers agree that part of the reason there is so much opposition to affordable housing — also known as work force housing — is that there is a general lack of understanding about what it is. “We don’t work towards creating Section 8 housing,” said Silva-Farrell. “We’re talking mostly middle-income families. And the reason is that we realize that middle-income families can’t really afford to stay on Long Island. That’s why it’s such a huge emigration of people.”
Section 8 housing, technically known as the Housing Choice Voucher Program, is government-subsidized housing for low-income families and people who might otherwise be homeless. But that is not what advocates of affordable housing want.
“What’s being missed is kind of that band in the middle between the haves and the have-nots,” said Capece. “It’s the young writer, it’s the policeman, the teacher, the nurse — those are the people that are being missed. It’s not the person that’s making $15,000, it’s the person making $30,000, $40,000 or $50,000 a year that’s being missed.”
By all accounts, Long Island residents, especially the elderly, are very concerned about what adding an apartment complex to their neighborhood would do to their home values. “We did a survey a couple of years ago in which we asked people the degree to which their long-term retirement savings was based on the value of their home,” said Golob. “And more so than in other areas, the degree to which Long Islanders are dependent on their homes for their retirement is very high. Scarily high.”
Because of that, Golob explained, Long Islanders are determined to keep their neighborhoods as they have always been. “You have to maintain everything the same, and that’s really not a recipe for a changing economy and a changing world,” Golob said. “But people don’t see that. They don’t understand it.”
Comments about this story? ACostello@liherald.com or (516) 569-4000 ext. 269.