Ossining officials are weighing a number of options aimed at addressing an array of housing issues in the village.
Ossining Mayor Victoria Gearity said the village’s housing policy has been a top priority for the board of trustees this year, with concerns ranging from unaffordable home and rent prices to overcrowding and displacement.
“What we know is that the reaction to a rising cost of living is compelling many people to think that Ossining many not be a place where they can raise their children, where they can age in place,” land consultant Kevin Dwarka said during a June 14 village board work session.
The village earlier this year retained Kevin Dwarka Land Use and Economic Consulting, a New York City firm, to help address its housing issues. Since his hiring, Dwarka, a senior fellow at Pace law school’s Land Use Law Center in White Plains, has conducted several public meetings and engaged with many residents and village officials to better understand the community’s troubles.
Dwarka presented a dozen possible options to the village during his hour-and-a-half presentation. One option is rent stabilization.
Under the Emergency Tenant Protection Act of 1974 (ETPA), which applies to various municipalities in Nassau, Rockland and Westchester counties, the village could choose to opt-in to a rent stabilization policy for all buildings constructed before 1974 with six or more units. Aside from limitations on the amount of rent tenants would have to pay, rent stabilization would also entitle tenants to receive required services, to have their leases renewed and prevent them from being evicted except on grounds allowed by law.
Dwarka said the policy could potentially apply to 1,200 existing housing units.
“Rent stabilization allows households to continue to be part of a community, to not be displaced,” he said, adding that the policy would also protect them from an increasingly competitive housing market.
However, Dwarka noted that there are a variety of weaknesses to rent stabilization.
“There really isn’t a provision in that regulation that rent-stabilized units must go to households who are most in need,” he said.
Under the policy, tenants are also able to bestow their apartment to an immediate family member. “This creates a tricky situation,” Dwarka said. “It also creates a situation where the tenants of a rent-stabilized unit are inclined to stay put for a very long time, even if the unit no longer meets their needs, which in turn, critics will argue, has an adverse effect on the supply.”
Other considerations regarding rent stabilization include a potentially negative effect on the tax revenues the village collects from certain buildings, administrative costs to put the program in place and questions as to how the village would qualify to enact the Emergency Tenant Protection Act.
“Regardless of what decision this community goes down with respect to rent stabilization, a spectrum of different policy options have to be considered as part of the village’s pathway forward,” Dwarka said.
Another problem the village faces is high property taxes, an issue exacerbated by Ossining’s dependence on residential property taxes and its lack of a commercial property base to relieve the tax burden on homeowners.
“This situation of cost burden, while it’s one that is felt throughout the New York metro region, is certainly one that your community consistently and broadly voices as a key concern,” Dwarka said.
The consultant said the village could begin to create partnerships with larger companies and academic institutions to promote commercial development within its borders. This could also create job opportunities for residents, especially those with lower incomes.
Overcrowding, particularly in two- and three-family units, is another large concern for village residents and officials.
“The amount of unsafe housing that has been permitted to infiltrate our village has reached an alarming degree,” Gearity said in a recent email.
Dwarka’s analysis found that overcrowded units in the village represent at least 10 percent of all overcrowded units across Westchester County.
“This concern about overcrowding (from residents) goes back fundamentally to a value that the housing in Ossining should be more than simply okay,” he said. “It should be high quality.”
To combat the problem, Dwarka suggested heightened enforcement of building codes. He said the village could hire additional staff to enforce codes, engage the community in reporting possible violations or impose an increase in fines for violators.
A perceived lack of affordable housing options is another growing concern for residents. One possible solution, Dwarka noted, could be to terminate payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOTs, for luxury developments. The agreements, typically for 10 years, give developers annual tax breaks on their properties through a schedule of gradually rising payments until the payments match the property’s full value.
Dwarka noted that Harbor Square, a $65 million waterfront apartment complex Ginsburg Development’s, received several tax exemptions from the village, including a PILOT. To encourage more affordable units, the village could instead offer tax exemptions for mixed-income housing, he said.
While luxury developments may have a positive fiscal impact in the long term, Dwarka said, “it might be more appropriate for the village to be thinking about the way in which tax exemptions more closely could be aligned with the type of development that is best matching the needs of existing residents.”
The village could also consider modifying its inclusionary housing rules, increasing the number of affordable units required in new developments from 10 percent to 20 percent, and changing the household income eligibility requirement for residents those units from 80 percent of the area median income to 60 percent.
Others ideas Dwarka floated during the presentation included creating a reactive landlord-tenant council, revising the comprehensive plan or zoning code, changing parking and transportation policy and starting a housing development entity similar to the Newburgh Land Bank.
Following the comprehensive presentation, Gearity said the public is encouraged to give feedback on the village’s website regarding the ideas and options presented.