On a cold and slippery afternoon this week, I found myself immersed in conversation about an idyllic summer house. And this time I could understand — or, I should say, almost understand — why some people who have tons of money would pay unbelievable sums for a summer rental. It really was gorgeous, with a long history, miles of lawn, and miles of white oceanfront sand.
The house being discussed was advertised last year at $450,000 for the month of July or $800,000 for the summer. I’m not sure people from other parts of the country would even believe that prices of such enormity (and I recognize that the word “enormity” conveys moral judgment) were really real.
It’s hard to talk about individual wealth without Donald J. Trump intruding. So I looked him up on the 2016 Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans. Poor Donald. Forbes places him only at number 156, tied with Steven Spielberg, with net worths of $3.7 billion. Sad.
Other South Fork homeowners are higher on the list, including Ira Rennert, of the notorious Fairfield residential compound in Sagaponack, as well as Katharine Rayner of East Hampton and Ralph Lauren, who has a place in Montauk. I have the feeling they don’t rent out their summer houses.
Trump has taken to calling Mar-a-Lago, his place in Palm Beach, Fla., the “winter White House.” He is reportedly heading there tomorrow for a vacation, two weeks into his new job. I don’t know if he ever rents the house out, or how he manages to live there part time while doing this, but the estate is now home to something called “Donald J. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club,” which is described on its website as “the epicenter of the social scene in Palm Beach.” (Like most of what our new Commander in Chief says, I take that boast with a grain of salt. “Membership at the club,” the marketing materials continue, “provides the highest privileges and an elite lifestyle reserved for a select few.” (Mm-hm.)
In 2012, The New York Times estimated that the net worth of America’s top 1 percent — and we heard a lot about the 1 percent during the presidential campaign — was nearly $8.4 million, or 69 times the median household’s net worth of $121,000. And that is only $8.4 million, with an “M,” while everyone on the Forbes 400 list counts net worth in billions, with a “B.” I have no idea what percentage of the populace the 400 represent, but it has to be infinitesimal.
But back to the East End. The gap between poverty and wealth here is not more extreme than in, say, New York City, but I think you could say that the relationship between the rich, the not-sorich, and the poor here is more intimate. And the gap is more extreme than it used to be. Who would have thought 20 or 25 years ago that there would be seven active food pantries between Bridgehampton and Montauk?
In a recent Star story, Joanne Pilgrim reported that East Hampton’s pantry helps feed 260 families every week. If I were a New York State legislator, I would introduce a bill proposing a fee on exceedingly expensive rentals. A morality tax. Say, 1 or 2 percent on top of rentals above $100,000 per month? Surely the community could find a good use for the money, in meals for shut-ins, hot lunches for school children, scholarships for community athletic programs.
But wait, you say: The existing 2-percent tax on most real estate transfers, from which the five East End towns reap millions for land preservation and, more recently, for water quality improvement, is evidence that the wealthy already do contribute to the community’s well being. That’s true, but when you are throwing around $450,000 just for a July by the ocean, I doubt you’d notice a few thousand more for the neighbors who mow your lawns and wash your socks (and, in some cases, come from families who once owned the land that mansion sits on).