How the Other Half Lives

A converted motel may be the best of a range of unsatisfactory options
Children boarded a school bus near the Inn at East Hampton. Hampton Pix

Since arriving in East Hampton from Ecuador, Jenny has moved upwards of a dozen times in seven years in search of a safe, affordable place to live with her school-aged child.

Her last room was in a four-bedroom house on Three Mile Harbor Road, for which she paid $800 a month. Since the house lacked heat and with winter approaching, she needed a more stable year-round option.

Jenny found a vacancy at the Inn at East Hampton, where she pays $1,300 a month to rent an unfurnished room. Located on Pantigo Road in East Hampton, the two-story, yellow and white building was formerly the 27 Inn and, before that, the Dutch Motel.

The motel serves as a semi-permanent home for local workers, many with young children, who are unable to find an apartment or a bedroom that they can afford in a shared house. With demand for affordable places to live far outpacing supply, the Inn at East Hampton is in many ways the current face of affordable housing — providing in some cases the best option among a range of unsatisfactory choices.

The South Fork is a land of economic extremes. In late January, Scott Bommer, the founder of SAB Capital Management, a hedge fund, sold three adjoining Lily Pond Lane properties in East Hampton for $110 million. According to Compass’s Ed Petrie, who brokered the deal, it was the second largest sale in New York State history.

Meanwhile, just a few miles away, working families — many of whom service such lavish estates as housekeepers, landscapers, or nannies — are unable to find affordable housing and live paycheck to paycheck.

Jenny awakens early each morning and walks for 90 minutes, no matter the weather, to her job in East Hampton. She works 40 hours each week and gets paid $13 an hour. Her monthly salary goes quickly. On days off, she cleans houses to make extra money.

At the Inn at East Hampton, “all the rooms are full,” Jenny said with the help of a translator. Apart from two Jamaican families, she said that everyone currently living there is Latino. Undocumented and without a driver’s license, Jenny, a single mother, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, feels particularly vulnerable.

According to current and former Inn at East Hampton residents, most of the rooms lack cooking facilities. Jenny and several of her neighbors have purchased electric hot plates and rice cookers to prepare basic meals. She washes her dishes in either the bathroom sink or the bathtub. Her room came with cable but no television, and she purchased a small refrigerator. She pays $45 a month for utilities.

Her child walks to the bus stop a few steps from the motel’s front entrance. On a recent Monday morning, 10 children boarded two school buses, the first headed to East Hampton Middle School and East Hampton High School and a later one bound for the John M. Marshall Elementary School.

Come evening, the motel’s parking lot quickly fills up, a combination of sedans, minivans, and trucks, with some residents gathering on the second-floor balcony to talk.

But for Jenny, at least, the situation is far from ideal. Concerned about security, she travels each day with her valuables tucked into a backpack, leaving nothing behind in the motel room.

Richard Burns, superintendent of the East Hampton Union Free School District, lamented the lack of affordable housing here. “Since the children reside in the East Hampton school district, we want to do the best we can do when they come to our buildings,” Mr. Burns said. Some families had previously rented Montauk motel rooms during the off season, he said, a practice that Jack Perna, superintendent of the Montauk School, said that the town had since stopped.

Unlike an overcrowded house, that may be illegally partitioned into more rooms than originally zoned for, motels receives annual safety inspections, with a septic system theoretically up to the task of servicing multiple units.

Last summer, the Inn at East Hampton rented its rooms to a group of Jamaican students working seasonal jobs. In late February, its manager, Jason Gutterman, said that because of serious damage to several rooms, he and Alex Demetriades, the motel’s owner, decided to explore other revenue streams, and started renting out the rooms on a monthly basis to year-round occupants. (Through Mr. Gutterman, Mr. Demetriades declined to comment for this story.)

Motels and hotels like the Inn at East Hampton are permitted to have both short-term and long-term renters, said Ann Glennon, East Hampton Town’s principal building inspector.

The Inn at East Hampton is a commercial property. As such, when East Hampton Town’s Office of Ordinance Enforcement receives a complaint, the fire marshal’s office, which inspects all commercial buildings once a year, follows up. Last July, according to an Ordinance Enforcement representative, the office received just one complaint related to the Inn at East Hampton. An Ordinance Enforcement representative said the caller complained of overcrowded conditions and claimed that residents were being taken advantage of.

David Browne, the chief fire marshal, confirmed that the Inn at East Hampton had been inspected in the past year, though he declined to specify an exact date. “We do inspections on all hotels and motels in town. It’s an ongoing, open case because we’re always inspecting them,” Mr. Browne said. Things like hot plates would be of particular interest, he said.

Starting last December, Mr. Gutterman began posting pictures of the unfurnished rooms on Bonac Rentals, a closed Facebook group with nearly 4,700 members. He often describes them as one-room studio apartments, with free hot water, cable television, and garbage removal. Tenants pay their own utilities, with each room equipped with individual utility gauges. A Spanish translation frequently accompanies each listing.

News of the vacant motel rooms spread quickly, and the 21 rooms were scooped up within days, with occupants paying between $1,300 to $1,500 a month, Mr. Gutterman said in the winter.

For the time being, Jenny plans on staying put, mostly for the lack of a better option. “But if something else pops up, I’m leaving,” she said.