Action Needed For Affordable Housing

Direct attacks on the problem from government are necessary

With an important East Hampton Town Board election ahead, any groundbreaking initiatives on affordable housing are somewhat delayed, lest anything upset the status quo. But even if work already were under way on, for example, a modest plan for such housing in the Wainscott School District, it would hardly be enough to meet the demand.

The paradox is that while there are plenty of opportunities here for first-time homebuyers and renters, Manhattan-level incomes are necessary and few in the South Fork work force make that kind of money. And for renters, the picture is growing desperate, as online services facilitating short-term turnover drive prices upward.

It is not entirely fair to say that nothing is happening on this in Town Hall. A revised rental registration ordinance is expected to be aired soon, and an enforcement push netted a few notable housing-rule busts this summer. We have argued before that a well-crafted rental registry would discourage some lawbreakers and give the town more tools for prosecutions. The paperwork nuisance it would entail would be worth it to get a handle on the flood of rentals that have turned many single-family houses into de facto hotels.

If owners think twice about allowing rentals for, say, a weekend bachelor party, as one East Hampton High School teacher is said to have done in August, netting $3,500 for three nights, they might opt instead for a legal, yearly rental to someone who actually wants to live in and contribute to the community. At the same time, it is imperative for the town to go after the online marketplaces that make such housing violations possible. Airbnb, Craigslist, and Vacation Rental by Owner blithely facilitate illegal transactions on a daily basis and should be challenged in court the same way the drug marketplace Silk Road was taken down by federal authorities in 2013. Town officials should ask New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who has already expressed interest in the subject, to get involved.

But seeking to control rentals will only go part of the way toward increasing the supply of affordable housing; direct attacks on the problem from government are necessary. One possibility is a fund that would impose a fee on new luxury construction to make low and no-interest loans available and pay property owners to make more affordable residences available. A bill from Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. would impose a $10-per-square-foot fee on floor area beyond 3,000 square feet — a McMansion tax, if you will.

This is a reasonable concept in that it taps the rich in an effort to assure that some of the labor force necessary to keep their summer palaces functioning can live in the area. The omission of funding in Mr. Thiele’s bill for building new, affordable rental housing is significant. With a proposed loan cap of $250,000, few among the region’s work force would be able to buy into a market where the median residential sale was $980,000 in the second quarter of this year. A dedicated program along the lines of the hugely successful community preservation fund may well be needed. As politically charged as that might be, it will take giant steps to solve the affordable housing conundrum, and everything should be open for discussion.