By Hank Russell
In addressing the housing crisis, Lee Silberman, chief executive officer of Habitat for Humanity of Long Island, offered a solution for the affordable housing problem in Suffolk County: donate the seized properties to the towns, which will convert these properties into affordable housing.
Silberman shared his idea during a LIMBA (Long island Metro Business Action) roundtable meeting that took place on November 4 at the Candlelight Diner in Commack. Habitat for Humanity builds houses for families whose income is 40% to 70% of the area median income. “We’re the only nonprofit that provides homeownership at this [income] level,” he said.
He pointed out that the number of low- and middle-income neighborhoods are decreasing, especially in Suffolk County. “The largest factor in turning around that neighborhood is increasing the percentage of owner-occupied housing.”
According to Silberman, the homeowner is given three years to pay back any outstanding property taxes on their residence. If the homeowner fails to do so, the house is seized by the county and goes up for auction. Most or all of the proceeds from the auction then go to the county.
“The proceeds, from my understanding, then go to the coffers of the county,” Silberman said. “It’s not being earmarked for affordable housing.”
The problem, Silberman said, is that the buyers at these auctions are not families looking to move in immediately. “The best scenario is that [the investor] is renting a home to one responsible family,” Silberman said. “The worst scenario is when it becomes a slum house, where it becomes an overcrowding situation or, worse, it becomes a drug den. You’d be surprised how many drug dealers buy properties at auction.”
Silberman said he has met with members of the county Legislature many times in an effort to get the county to turn over these abandoned properties to the towns. Instead, the county takes “a default position” to put the property up at auction. “Only if the town doesn’t want to accept the donation, only in those instances would the parcel go up for auction,” he said.
LIMBA Chairman Ernie Fazio asked why the county will not donate the land. Silberman replied, “They want to sell it at auction for the highest price. My feeling … is that it is a pennywise, pound-foolish policy.” Those neighborhoods where houses are being bought at auction “will go into decline” and will require “a strong police presence” to reduce or eliminate crime in the area.
If the parcels were donated to the town, “it would change the dynamic,” Silberman said. “It would free up a lot of land for organizations such as Habitat.” However, Habitat for Humanity of Long Island has only 18 months of inventory left in Suffolk “and I don’t see much more [properties] coming down the pike,” he said.
Long Island Life & Politics sent several emails to Suffolk County government requesting a response. They did not get back to us as of press time.