Long Island Real Estate: Levittown Suburb Abandons Its Affordable Roots

You might not notice it while cruising down the Long Island Expressway on the Hampton Jitney, but Long Island, N.Y. -- once the epitome of the suburban dream -- is having something of a midlife crisis as politicians, civic organizations and developers debate how to create more affordable housing.

Yes, the place that brought the world Levittown, the ultimate post-1945 mass suburb with cheap housing, has fallen behind in its ability to offer affordable homes, especially apartments. In fact, only 17 percent of the Island's housing stock is rental (compared to 38 percent in tony Westchester County, N.Y.).

The Island is certainly a place for those in the upper income bracket: Home values, even after the real estate bust, are five times household incomes, making Nassau and Suffolk counties among the 10 least-affordable counties in the U.S.

Who or what is to blame, and how do we move forward?
Some blame housing history and subsequent zoning laws, while others look to balky local governments and civic groups -- and developers more interested in McMansions than affordable houses and apartments. Or perhaps it's a combination of all of the above.

Those who fled New York City for all those ranches and split-levels (like my parents), and peaceful greenery, wanted single-family housing and nothing to do with tenements and renters -- and the local zoning laws still reflect that desire.

"A lot of people blame builders, but the builders were building what the zoning allowed to be built," Matt Whalen, vice president of development for AvalonBay Communities, a builder of high-end apartment complexes on the Island, told the Long Island Press.

One developer, Home Properties Inc., which owns older apartments on the Island, recently stopped pursuing new construction, The Wall Street Journal reported. Besides a scarcity of land, "it takes a long time for approvals," a spokesman said.

The lack of affordable housing has led to many problems for the 2.8 million residents. Long Island is the third most segregated suburban region of the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. There has been an exodus of young people and businesses, and difficult choices for baby boomers who want to downsize and stay in their communities, but can't afford to.

It's also an opportunity for builders, planners and designers. A recent Build a Better Burb competition, sponsored by the Long Island Index, received over 200 innovative entries -- including many for affordable and mixed-housing beyond the cookie-cutter single-family ranch.

Let's hope the designers' ideas are seriously considered.

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