Good Help Needed, Housing Wanted

For many business owners here, spring means worry. Shops have to be readied, inventory ordered, and machinery repaired. Topping it all is finding staff, and it seems that each year it gets more difficult to do so. A large part of the problem in securing good help comes from a lack of housing. From the perspective of employers seeking staff, it might seem that there is plenty of housing around, but that the wrong people occupy it.

Options for local government to do something to ease the worker shortage are limited and would take either time or money or both. That is not to suggest that officials should stand idly by. 

Among the immediate steps the South Fork towns and villages should take is cracking down hard on the proliferation of illegal short-term rentals that have sharply reduced the number of apartments and cottages that would otherwise have been rented to the local work force — and driven up the rent on the little remaining stock. 

Because of the ease of using online sites like Airbnb, property owners have turned increasingly to weekend visitors as a source of income. This came after decades in which other apartments, such as those above shops in East Hampton Village and Sag Harbor, were converted from apartments to offices, setting the stage for the bigger losses in housing inventory to come. Blame, too, goes to those government officials who did nothing to control the quasi-legal expansion of existing mom-and-pop motels or restaurants into venues capable of hosting hundreds of guests at a time. 

For the longer term, East Hampton Town in particular must seek to reduce the demand for seasonal labor by eliminating some work force-heavy businesses, notably in the accommodation and dining sectors. Musing about this some time ago, East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell called for “amortizing” out of existence some of the more problematic party places. Though this would be a radical approach, the demands many of these businesses make on infrastructure far outweigh their benefit to the year-round community, and much of the profits and wages flow out of town almost as fast as they come in.

Building more apartments or starter houses is a more palatable option, but public funding for this is hard to come by and projects can take years. It is better to find ways to increase the supply as quickly as possible while reducing demand over time. So far, neither East Hampton nor Southampton Town has been able to manage growth in a way that would assure an adequate labor supply. Now is the time to brave the political fallout and start doing so. Without meaningful action, the situation will only get worse.