Scott Brinton

Let’s legalize illegal apartments


You could say that Long Island’s housing crisis — and, yes, there is a housing crisis — is a product of its success.

In 1948, when the Manhasset-based Levitt & Sons built 6,000 homes on 1,400 acres, forming what became Levittown, a typical Levitt house — three bedrooms, one bathroom, boiler in a kitchen closet — sold for $7,500.

Yup, $7,500. Think about that figure for a moment. Soak it in.

Today that same home is worth, on average, $391,000, according to That’s twice the national median home value of $188,900.

Why, for Pete’s sake, are Long Island homes so darned expensive?

Simple. People want to live here, despite all the hoopla about folks moving to less-costly locales. We are one hellish ride on the Long Island Rail Road from the cradle of civilization — New York City — and we are surrounded by white-sand beaches. Crime is low. Schools are largely excellent — among the very best in the country. And people are generally nice to one another — not Allagash, Maine (pop. 239), friendly, but friendly enough.

To afford your basic Levitt home now, you must save $78,200 for a 20 percent down payment, plus another $10,000 or $20,000 in broker’s and attorney’s fees. And you must be able to afford a monthly mortgage payment of around $3,000, including property taxes. That means you must have an annual family income of at least $120,000 to ensure that your housing costs amount to no more than 30 percent of your total take-home pay.

That’s a lot of money, especially considering that the national average household income was $55,775 last year, according to census data. And Levittown is among Nassau County’s more affordable neighborhoods.

“America’s first suburb has gone from being one of the most affordable places to raise a family to one of the least,” according to “Long Island’s Rental Housing Crisis,” a report that was co-sponsored in 2013 by the Regional Plan Association, the Long Island Community Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

No wonder Long Islanders gripe as much as they do.

How does a young person just starting out, earning entry-level wages, make it here? How does he or she rent that first apartment, buy that first home, settle down? How does a retiree survive on a fixed income?

It’s possible. People do it. Why, though, must it be so hard to make ends meet?

In part, it’s politics. For decades, the majority of Long Island cities, towns and villages have resisted what real estate gurus call “accessory apartments” — one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartments built onto or under single-family homes that allow homeowners to earn extra cash to more easily afford their overpriced living quarters.

Government officials rarely want to touch the issue, apparently fearing backlash. Residents, those officials say, worry that streets will suddenly fill with parked cars. Worse, there will be an influx of children. Class sizes will balloon past 30 students. Grades will plummet. Home prices will drop.

It’s all fear-mongering, of course. Try fitting a multi-child family into a one-bedroom apartment.

There are already thousands of accessory apartments scattered throughout Nassau County. Many, if not most, are illegal, however. The government, stupidly, doesn’t regulate them, nor does it collect taxes on them. The answer? Legalize accessory apartments — with restrictions, of course.

According to a new study by the Long Island Index, a project of the nonprofit Rauch Foundation — “Home Remedies, Accessory Apartments on Long Island: Lessons Learned,” by former Newsday reporter Elizabeth Moore — if just 10 percent of the Island’s single-family homes had legal accessory apartments, that could help solve the housing crisis by increasing the stock of safe, affordable apartments available to young people and older adults.

Just 10 percent.

In Suffolk County, accessory apartments are allowed in the towns of Babylon, Brookhaven, East Hampton, Huntington, Islip, Riverhead and Southold, according to the Long Island Index. They are also allowed in Smithtown and Southampton, but with limitations.

The Town of Hempstead allows accessory apartments, but only for family members. They cannot be rented to strangers.

The cities of Glen Cove and Long Beach prohibit them, as do 62 of the Island’s 97 villages.

“Accessory apartments have proven their worth as the most affordable type of rental housing in the region,” the Index states. “They can be easily accommodated because they don’t require large infusions of capital, new roads, new sewers or expansion of the electrical grid. Instead, existing neighborhoods absorb the rental-seeking population like a sponge, while stabilizing finances for tax-strapped homeowners. They also provide affordable housing that is blended throughout the community rather than clustered, and having a resident homeowner usually means that they are better maintained than rentals with absentee owners.”

I started writing about the need for local legislation allowing accessory apartments more than a decade ago. To me, they just make sense. I’m pleased to see that the Long Island Index agrees. Now, if only our Nassau County elected leaders at the city, town and village levels would get on board.

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column?