Long Island is world-renowned for its single-family suburban lifestyle, yet it needs a broader mix of housing. A recent public opinion survey shows that a majority of Long Islanders agree, and that's good news for a region whose future economic strength will depend to a large degree on developing that mix.
Long Island has historically resisted changing the fundamental recipe of single-family homes on which the region rose to global prominence, but 21st-century needs have changed, and jobs have been going to other suburban areas that have altered the housing formula -- offering a greater mix of options for various stages of life. Those options include the type of housing (apartments, condominiums, and garage apartments), the financial arrangement (renting as well as ownership), the proximity of housing (downtown and transit-oriented), and the cost (not only luxury but affordable).
The public opinion survey of 1050, randomly selected, Long Island residents was commissioned by the Long Island Index, a project of the Rauch Foundation, and conducted by the Stony Brook University Center for Survey Research. It revealed striking levels of support for a variety of housing options.
According to the survey, more than half (52 percent) of Long Island residents could imagine themselves or an immediate family member living in an apartment, condominium, or townhouse in a local Long Island downtown. That's the first time that a majority of Long Island residents have indicated that, based on past Long Island Index surveys.
A majority (53 percent) also said that it's somewhat or very important to live within walking distance of shops and entertainment. That's quite a statement in a region so dominated by cars for so long.
An even larger majority (58 percent) support increasing height limits in local Long Island downtowns to allow apartments above stores. That's the most support for increasing height limits downtown since the Long Island Index's surveys began in 2002.
Still larger majorities emerged. Sixty-five percent of Long Islanders support changes to zoning laws that would make it easier to install legal rental apartments in a single-family home. Sixty-eight percent support new multi-level parking garages in local downtowns in their county. Those garages would further facilitate greater density downtown.
Inspiring these changes are two realities also reflected in the survey: a majority (60 percent) of Long Islanders are having at least some difficulty in meeting their monthly rent and mortgage payments, due to persistently high housing costs; more than three-quarters (77 percent) of Long Island residents are, therefore, concerned that some family members might have to leave the area.
Fortunately, the realities of high housing costs are encouraging broader housing options. A major challenge, however, will be to ensure that those options provide for affordable housing while maintaining high design quality.
Build a Better Burb, the online journal of suburban design published by the Rauch Foundation, has been exploring affordable housing designs nationally and internationally to enliven a discussion on Long Island and beyond of how best to enhance communities through affordable housing.
In an opening interview, Professor Douglas S. Massey of Princeton University says, "The key to affordable housing is not to concentrate it," but "to build and maintain it so that it blends in." That's one of the crucial lessons of this five-part series for Long Island and other suburban areas. Affordable housing must blend in -- not stand out, as so much of it has in the past -- and not be concentrated. It should enhance a community, not become a community.
Long Island has an extraordinary opportunity to broaden its mix of housing options at a time when downtowns -- and especially transit-oriented downtowns -- are more popular than ever. Those downtowns can be enlivened by greater variety and density without undercutting traditional areas of single-family homes. They can make it possible for Long Islanders to remain on Long Island, to have easier access to New York City and other parts of the region, and to benefit from local job growth.
The especially good news from this survey is that Long Islanders want what Long Island needs: a broader mix of housing options, which will increase the economic vitality that the region seeks.
Nancy Rauch Douzinas is President of the Rauch Foundation.