David Kapell served as mayor of Greenport, a waterfront village on the North Fork of Long Island, from 1994 until 2007. He is credited with helping revitalize Greenport, transforming a distressed community into a destination for visitors and young families. In an opinion piece published in 2007, The New York Times wrote that Kapell “worked aggressively to welcome new things—a park, a carousel, an ice rink, a power plant, community patrols in red berets, affordable housing, even Latino immigrants—and his village, once a dumpy, corrupt East End dead end, has thrived for it.”
The Village’s success created new challenges: while Kapell was mayor, Greenport saw an influx of wealthy summer residents, pushing property values out of reach for many longtime residents. Thus Kapell pursued several initiatives to help keep housing affordable in Greenport, a “community with solidly working-class roots.” Kapell reflected on these efforts in summer 2014.
How has Greenport’s turnaround affected the community’s housing?
David Kapell: The turnaround has affected the Village’s housing supply in dramatic fashion. Since 1980, demand for homes for secondary use [vacation homes] has effectively diminished the supply of housing available to permanent residents by 25 percent. This has pushed sales prices beyond the reach of most local families, thereby increasing demand and pricing for rentals.
While you were mayor, what steps did the Village take to preserve its rental housing stock?
Kapell: Because the Village is 100 percent developed, there is little opportunity for new housing development. To stem the loss of supply, the Village relaxed the requirements for two-family house conversions, effectively making the process “as-of-right” for 90 percent of residential properties. We also made it permissible to develop residential uses on upper stories and in accessory buildings in the commercial district. This allowed us to make more efficient use of the existing housing stock.
In addition to concrete policy actions, we talked regularly about the problem, making it clear to anyone interested in investing in the Village that it was our intent to preserve socioeconomic diversity. We were careful to administer the Village building and code enforcement functions in a way that protected public safety, but did not threaten to displace families from their homes.
How did you generate public support for amending zoning regulations to allow more two-family residences?
Kapell: Knowing that the public hearing [about the proposed zoning amendment] could be controversial and that NIMBYs would be there to object, I recruited attendance by people who would benefit from the proposed changes, to ensure a balanced conversation at the hearing. The Village-wide scope of the proposed zoning amendment neutralized opposition from those who might have complained that the solution was being imposed on them and not others. The result was quite remarkable. After a serious and in-depth discussion of the problem and proposed solution, lasting two hours, a clear consensus emerged in favor, leading to quick adoption by the Village Board.
In an interview with Long Island Business News at the end of your tenure as mayor, you said you hoped Greenport would “continue to be a real place for real people to live.” What did you mean by this?
Kapell: Greenport has a rich tradition as a working-class town. Unchecked gentrification threatens this legacy.
You’ve been an outspoken supporter of socioeconomic diversity, citing it as one of Greenport’s strengths. Why? How does this relate to Greenport’s housing and its downtown?
Kapell: With 40 percent of its housing stock comprised of rentals, the Village offers opportunity for families of diverse backgrounds. This is unique among communities on eastern Long Island, where rental housing is generally discouraged. Consequently, the rental market in Greenport is strong. Having families living in the Village year-round supports the business district, especially in the long off-season months. It also supports the school system through enrollment.
Long Island has “a thriving illegal apartment market.” Although all 13 towns on Long Island allow some types of accessory housing, their zoning regulations create a formidable deterrent to building accessory apartments. And the Long Island Index found in its 2011 survey of selected villages that more than two-thirds do not allow accessory housing. What does this mean for our region?
Kapell: Until the region responds to the critical shortage of rental housing options, we will continue to watch as young people and families are forced to relocate to areas where such options are offered—making raising a family economically feasible.
Places like Santa Cruz, CA, not only tolerate accessory apartments, but actually encourage them. Do you think this model will spread across the country?
Kapell: I do believe that over time, the economic and human reality that homeownership is out of reach for a large percentage of the U.S. population will trump local opposition to expanding the supply [of other housing options].
In 2012, 37 percent of Long Island households were paying at least 35 percent of their income for housing—in other words, housing is unaffordable for many, many Long Islanders. In your words, “it’s easier to innovate at the local level.” So how can Long Island, as a region, take steps towards addressing this issue?
Kapell: This is a very difficult question, but without some form of enforceable regional consensus, Long Island will likely continue to stagnate. Although it is easier to innovate at the local level, history shows that most localities object to expanded rental housing. Perhaps the success in places like Greenport, Patchogue, and Westbury can, over time, influence other communities to take progressive action.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
Note: David Kapell works as a consultant for the Rauch Foundation, which sponsors Build a Better Burb.