Long Island Town of Huntington Says No to More Apartments

At a heated town meeting, a resident warned “pedophiles or criminals” would move into new housing.

Sam Mellins   ·   July 27, 2023
A colorized building with an American flag and a sepia background
The Huntington Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Building. | Photo: Huntington Historical Society / Illustration: Maia Hibbett

“I just want to make sure that there will be no migrants, pedophiles, or criminals moving in, because that’s what I’m afraid of,” said one woman at a June public hearing on a proposal to allow more housing in the Long Island town of Huntington. She wasn’t the only speaker to mention pedophiles.

A few minutes later, an elderly man sporting a “World War II Veteran” hat took his turn at the podium.

“Please, please, don’t let this happen here,” he said. “This isn’t the country I fought for. You’re thinking of changing the complexion of this beautiful community.”

For nearly three hours, they and dozens of other speakers railed against the idea that was the reason for the meeting: a proposed law to allow some homeowners in the town to convert their basements or garages into rental apartments.

Councilmember Joan Cergol, a Democrat, had advanced the measure in the hopes of putting a dent in the housing shortage in Huntington, which has made it difficult for businesses to find employees and for young people and seniors on fixed incomes to find places they can afford. It was supported by two of her colleagues, Councilmembers Dave Bennardo and Sal Ferro, both Republicans.

“My goal was to make this a bipartisan measure because I didn’t want it to be politicized,” Cergol told New York Focus. “I certainly was not prepared for a very organized opposition coming out that night.”

The measure had been in the works for nearly a year. Before the hearing, it looked like it had a solid chance at passing, since three out of the five councilmembers supported it. But the torrent of opposition from speakers turned one of them against the bill, killing it for at least the time being.

Councilmember Ferro told New York Focus that he was horrified by some of the speakers, whom he described as bigoted and racist. But other comments from people concerned about preserving single family zoning and avoiding too much density “did hit home.”

“This isn’t the country I fought for. You’re thinking of changing the complexion of this beautiful community.”

—Huntington resident

“That night, my mind was changed,” he said. “Too many issues were brought out that need to be addressed.”

Without his support, it’s unlikely that the measure can pass.

“I’m the train conductor, I’m in the front and ready to go out, but I need my two passengers,” Cergol said. She said she also hasn’t heard anything about advancing the bill from Bennardo, who didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Huntington’s laws allowed the creation of basement apartments until 2019, when the town banned them, citing safety risks. The basement apartments already in existence were allowed to remain.

The bill would have allowed new apartments if the owner lived on the property, the floor space was between 300 and 750 square feet, the unit met building and fire safety codes, and the apartment came with enough parking, among other requirements.

Basement and garage apartments, also known as “accessory dwelling units,” or “adus” have gained popularity across the country as a way to increase housing options while preserving low-density suburban neighborhoods. Eight states have passed laws to prevent localities from banning adus in recent years. Governor Kathy Hochul proposed doing the same in her 2022 budget plan, but quickly withdrew the measure after it was met with intense opposition from local elected officials.

This year, Hochul proposed a plan that would have required towns across the state to add a set amount of new housing, and threatened to override their local zoning laws if they refused. Despite Hochul’s emphasis on the issue, the plan was nixed by state legislators and local officials, especially on Long Island. Many local electeds said that they, not the state government, should be in charge of housing strategies, and that a mandate from Albany was unnecessary.

“I was really proud knowing that Huntington on Long Island was going to be the first municipality to step forward following this big pushback against Albany,” Cergol said. “I’m very discouraged. I’m just disappointed.”

The future for Cergol’s proposal doesn’t seem bright. Town Supervisor Ed Smyth, a Republican, opposes the measure, as does the Huntington Republican Party. Cergol is leaving office at the end of the year.

“I was pretty excited about the adus but obviously you can’t get your hopes up too much on Long Island,” said Hunter Gross, president of the Huntington Township Housing Coalition.

Huntington, a town of 200,000 people that covers an area larger than Brooklyn, has built very little housing in recent years. Last year, it issued 149 housing permits, according to US census data — less than one for every 1,000 residents. So far this year, it has issued only 26. Under Hochul’s housing plan, it would have been required to add about 2,000 new homes over three years.

Huntington’s population is also more than three-quarters white, with Black and Latino people comprising less than 15 percent of the town’s population. In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled that Huntington had violated the federal Fair Housing Act by limiting apartments to a Black neighborhood, and ordered the town to allow an affordable housing development in a white neighborhood. That project broke ground early this year.

While he no longer supports the apartment proposal, Ferro said he wants to look into other ways to build housing in Huntington, such as building out town centers.

For Ferro, the housing shortage is personal: Two of his three adult children, aged 22 and 31, still live with him, because they can’t afford housing in the area.

“They all love Long Island. It’s where they grew up,” Ferro said. “I say to myself, where are you guys gonna be? Everybody can’t live in million dollar homes.”

Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
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