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Oct 29, 2019 2:48 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Housing 'Crisis' Discussed In East Hampton 'Press Sessions' Forum

The panel during The Press Sessions: Affordable Housing event held at Rowdy Hall in East Hampton on Thursday, October 24.  MICHAEL HELLER
Oct 29, 2019 4:37 PM

For Gail Simons, finding a place for her family to live has been an increasingly frustrating and humiliating challenge over the last decade.

As rentals have been sold out from under her, or revoked to make room for Airbnb tenants, and the available choices dwindle with each passing summer season, the stresses she endures just to have a place to sleep get greater and greater.

“You either have to get really lucky or really creative,” Ms. Simons, a single mother of two, told the audience at the most recent “Press Sessions” luncheon, on Thursday, October 24, in East Hampton Village. “I have lived on more than one occasion in a tent, waiting for a rental to become available. And it’s not for lack of having an income. At $48,000 a year — I should be able to live on that.”

But for her and many like her, the search for suitable, affordable, legal housing on the South Fork has become a nearly unending scramble.

An ever-growing second-home market, the loss of thousands of homes into the commercial market of short-term rentals facilitated by online sites, and rules and mores that discourage the creation of large-scale housing supplies have driven those like Ms. Simons, who have jobs and roots in the community but cannot muster the hundreds of thousands of dollars required to purchase even a small home on the South Fork, into increasingly desperate situations.

Last week’s Press Sessions event turned the discussion series’ focus onto the problem of the affordable housing shortage. A panel of those who have endured the regular search for affordable housing, those who are laboring to provide it and those who are hoping to make it more readily available in the future gathered before an audience of community members in Rowdy Hall for the luncheon discussion.

The panel included Ms. Simons; Tom Ruhle, the director of East Hampton Town’s Office of Housing and Community Development, which spearheads the town’s efforts to create more affordable housing; Catherine Casey, the director of the East Hampton Housing Authority, which facilitates many of the affordable housing projects the town has undertaken; State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., who has introduced legislation that would put a half-percent tax on all real estate sales that would go into a fund to help create more affordable housing opportunities; J.P. Foster, the president of the East Hampton School Board; and East Hampton Town Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, who has been the Town Board liaison on affordable housing issues and has overseen the construction of a 12-unit condominium project that the town is preparing to begin selling units in at below-market prices.

In the 40-person audience were other residents who have struggled, like Ms. Simons, to find scarce living arrangements they can afford, parents whose children have been forced to move elsewhere because of the high cost of housing in East Hampton, and business owners who have been unable to find housing for their employees.

The shortage is undeniable and the reasons for it are many, Mr. Ruhle told the audience.

The second-home market in a decades-long period of economic expansion has “gobbled” up a larger and larger percentage of the housing supply, he said, even as construction has raced forward at a breakneck pace only barely interrupted even by the Great Recession.

The creation of the Community Preservation Fund prevented more land from being lost to housing development and infrastructure from being further overwhelmed, but also served to drive the value of land and existing homes higher even faster.

“The CPF was a result of the second-home owners gobbling up all the open space and putting stress on the environment,” Mr. Ruhle said. “As much housing as we’ve built, we’ve been overrun by second-home owners.”

And online rental services like Airbnb and Vrbo have more recently accelerated the move of existing housing from year-round rentals to purely vacation uses.

“More people are viewing a house not as a place to live but as an economic vessel,” Mr. Ruhle said. “The house next to mine sold for $550,000 and was torn down. Now, it’s a six-bedroom that’s being Airbnb-ed. You lost that house from the market.”

Mr. Thiele also noted that he’s been told the proliferation of shorter-term rentals seems to be showing other economic impacts, according to local chambers of commerce. Even someone renting a house for the season or a month is likely to spend money at hardware and home goods stores — while renters staying only a matter of days are not.

But the greatest and most disturbing impact, several people on the panel and in the audience said, is the flight of the community’s young people that is being caused by both the high cost of purchasing a home and the lack of housing that young people can afford to rent while they are saving up to buy their first homes.

Mr. Foster said the local school district is missing out on the chance to have its own “best and brightest” remain in the community and be the educators of its next generation. Instead, they move away.

“So we lose our kids and they go somewhere else and make that area better,” Mr. Foster said, nodding to the example of his daughter, who plans to be a teacher but is not sure she’ll be able to afford to settle in East Hampton.

Audience member Dawn Rana Brophy, who is on the Amagansett School Board, said that her son took his children out of the school that he had attended and moved his family of four to Colorado, where he was able to purchase a house for $350,000.

“We’re getting this drain,” Ms. Rana Brophy said. “To me, it’s a crisis.”

Ms. Casey and Ms. Overby both said the town and the Housing Authority have been working hard to create new options — though Ms. Simons and some on the panel said that even those options were unattainable or insufficient to serve the need.

The apartments in the Gansett Meadow apartments, which will be available to be occupied next year, will have variable rent fees depending on income that could go as low as $1,500 for a two-bedroom apartment, but could also be available to someone earning as much as $76,000 a year at higher rents. There will also be several apartments available to very low-income individuals or families who will receive “Section 8” rental assistance.

Ms. Overby said that the town is nearly ready to start selling units in its first ever condominium-style affordable housing project on Accabonac Road. The condominium model, she said, could be one that will prove very useful in the town, because it promotes ownership at prices below that of single-family homes. And the “manor house” design used in the project, she said, is very adaptable and will make it easier to fit subsidized housing into residential neighborhoods because “it looks like the house next door,” she said.

This year’s race for supervisor has juxtaposed the town’s smaller-scale efforts, like the current developments and the accessory apartment law, with a proposal by candidate David Gruber calling for a more aggressive effort to create larger apartment complexes with several dozen units each.

Mr. Thiele said that he is hopeful the housing assistance fund that he authored, which was approved by both houses of the State Legislature this year, will be signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo and approved in a referendum by voters in the fall of 2020.

He’s estimated that such a fund could generate up to $5 million a year for East Hampton Town alone to put toward housing issues. Programs like down payment assistance for first-time home buyers and even outright purchases of houses have been discussed as possible options.

Mr. Ruhle said the town is already working on a package of programs in anticipation of the law being put up for a vote next year.

“It’s almost impossible to build your way out of this,” Mr. Thiele said. “One of the things you have to do is make the existing stock more affordable.”

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These meetings are a joke because most intelligent individuals know that $$$ talks and NO ONE wants “affordable housing” in their backyard...
By Sturgis (611), Southampton on Nov 1, 19 10:34 AM
Why? What is wrong with "affordable housing"? What do you think of when you hear "affordable housing" that makes it so undesirable?
By Rich Morey (378), East Hampton on Nov 2, 19 6:32 PM
Section 8?
By Mr. Z (11847), North Sea on Nov 2, 19 10:27 PM
Ask homeowners.
I’m not a homeowner myself....
However it’s easy to research , for example google affordable housing in suburban communities.
Personally I’m for it. I just know many people are not. The issue, especially in the Hamptons , is overcrowding fear and greed .
By Sturgis (611), Southampton on Nov 3, 19 7:21 AM
With all due respect I say / ask in reference to Ms.Simons and living in a tent ...
There wasn’t a relative or a friend that could help shelter you ..?
By Biba (566), East Hampton on Nov 1, 19 10:09 PM
Yes, Biba, that was my reality. Obviously if I had better options I would have taken them. The whole point is that this IS the reality.
This entire article & that is your take away? Not ideas to help, thoughts to bring the discussion further? That’s the comment? This is meant to bring things forward, not pick on “could/would/should”.
By Gail (5), East Hampton on Nov 2, 19 5:11 PM
No this is not my only take away...I was just what I said it was ...merely a question.
And I fully understand your predicament...I’ve been there many times and I’ve been offered shelter ...I’m sorry you weren’t as lucky...

This is not about picking on should/could or would.

As for the take away....
I agree with Sturgis ...

When where we live is no longer a status symbol things maybe could move forward...who knows .
This is why unfortunately ...more
By Biba (566), East Hampton on Nov 3, 19 12:58 AM
More needs to be done to create affordable housing in our area if we want people who were born and raised here to stay. I recall a news item some time ago where either the village or the town had changed the laws regarding allowing second kitchens in houses for the purpose of creating rental units but I'm not sure if that law was adopted or just proposed. And if it was adopted I'm not sure if anyone has acted on it but that would be a good way to create additional housing options without the stigma ...more
By Rich Morey (378), East Hampton on Nov 2, 19 6:31 PM
One more thing....
Why did the press put quotation marks around the word crisis...?

For anyone that thinks this isn’t indeed a crisis , is beyond disingenuous......
By Sturgis (611), Southampton on Nov 4, 19 8:40 AM
The people who caused the problem aren't the people who will solve it.

In fact, the thought of additional taxes on real estate sales to build more slush funds that will ultimately benefit nobody but the politicians is profoundly offensive.
By even fIow (60), Westhampton Beach on Nov 7, 19 11:32 AM