Affordable Conundrum

     As if we didn’t know it already, the Hamptons are not an easy place in which to be poor, or, frankly, even middle class. With prime land selling for far in excess of $2 million an acre and bottom of the barrel houses on minuscule lots going for more than $350,000, the locals whose families may have tilled the land or fished the sea have few options. A lucky few, of course, have inherited houses. But what about their children, many of whom have had to move away?

    The playground of the famously rich requires drones to service plutocratic wants and whims. Yet, with market-driven real estate values, where can these almost-afterthoughts find affordable housing? As a seasonal resort, the area cannot support the vast numbers of workers needed. That’s why we import transient help during summers and why laborers commute from parts west, contributing to hellacious traffic in their vehicle convoys, known as the trade parade.

    As the South Fork becomes more desirable, it also becomes less accessible to low-income dwellers. Thus they find themselves “living in overcrowded, substandard conditions,” according to Tom Ruhle, East Hampton Town’s director of housing and community development. “There are single-family houses in Springs [with so many illegal tenants] that are tantamount to apartment buildings,” he said. His agency is the “inevitable byproduct of government interventions in the marketplace.”

East Hampton Town has struggled with how to maintain a diverse community with multiple income levels since at least the ’80s, making some strides with subsidized projects up until a few years ago, when the economic downturn and the town’s own fiscal crisis combined to put the brakes on such efforts.

    Several factors have conspired to make the present a particularly bad time for the low-income population, according to Catherine Casey, the East Hampton Housing Authority’s executive director. She cites the bank-fuelled pre-2008 mortgage glut as one cause. Back then “it wasn’t uncommon for someone with an income of $45,000 to purchase a $650,000 home,” she said, adding that once those buyers lost their properties, they were thrown back into the rental market. Add to that the fact that banks have pulled way back on underwriting loans, and let’s not forget about Hurricane Sandy. Ms. Casey said that “overnight 10,000 homeowners” lost a roof over their heads, many of them coming out east and “gobbling up local homes just like after 9/11 . . . forcing locals into rentals.” Not to mention the glut of second-home owners buying up available stock.

    She also points to a recently released study by the Long Island Community Foundation that posits that “Long Island rentals are prohibitively expensive,” with renters spending “at least 30 percent of their income on housing.” And, she stresses, “incomes out here are not increasing at the same rate as the Consumer Price Index.” All of this has led to a predictable scarcity of affordable housing.

    To be eligible for subsidized housing here, prospective tenants need the savvy and stamina to battle through the red tape. The Housing Authority owns and manages three properties. At its 50-unit Accabonac Apartments, built in 1998, there are two waiting lists — one is for subsidized units (when the tenant moves out, the next tenant gets the subsidized unit), the other for tenants who bring their subsidies with them. It is a job in itself just to figure it all out.

    Who’s on these waiting lists? “It’s across the spectrum,” said Ms. Casey. “New immigrants, seniors born and bred, young families, the disabled, the marginally employed,” those with “multiple part time jobs,” “the working poor,”  “a family of four who work hard with two or three wage earners taking home $45,000,” “someone on disability bringing in $11,000 a year.”

    Getting into one of these properties is iffy. “It comes in fits and spurts,” she said. “Sometimes no one moves out for two years, then 10 move out in one year.”

    Mr. Ruhle’s agency has “caused about 200 [low-income] houses to be built since the ’80s,” he said. “Our goal is to create a secondary market for affordable houses, separate and distinct from the open market.” His office’s latest approach, at Green Hollow, which was conceived in 2000 and completed in 2010, was to dole out town-owned land through affordable, 99-year leases. Applicants lease the land but own the house built on it, paying for the cost of construction — anywhere from about $180,000 to $300,000. The owner is even able to bequeath the house to his or her heirs who can, in turn, renew their lease on the land, as long as they meet the qualifications. If the owner sells the property, the town has right of first purchase. The appreciation is capped at the Consumer Price Index or the appraised value, whichever is lower. If the property is sold to someone on the town’s waiting list, that buyer can take over the lease on the land.

    Another tactic for securing new affordable housing has been to transfer credits from a development that could have taken place in one part of town and move it to another part, specifically to create affordable apartments over stores. It is a way of getting around County Health Department regulations that would otherwise ban such usage due to density restrictions relating to septic flow. “It’s not a big thing yet,” he said, as there they must wait for new stores to be built. “It’s happened maybe a dozen times.”

    With no end to waiting lists in sight, the town clearly needs more such projects. Perhaps at the upcoming hearing on Nov. 7, for which the pubic has been invited to contribute their input on how to spend $104,404 in Community Development Block Grant funds given to the town by the feds, a few good ideas will be put forth.