Affordable housing, a recurrent campaign theme in East Hampton elections, is a bitter paradox. As the total number of vacation houses climbs upward, there are fewer and fewer places for year-round residents and the seasonal work force to live.
With guesses well above 1,000 for the total number of housing units needed for people who want to get or keep a job here or remain close to family, it is obvious that East Hampton is not going to build its way out of the problem. Nor will attacking the demand created by ever-greater commercialization yield quick results. Unless Town Hall gets a mandate from voters to cap growth, that is not going to happen. However, there is a single lever officials can use right now to free up rentals — taking on Airbnb and other “home share” aggregators.
Jersey City, is trying to do just that. After Manhattan, it has among the highest proportion of short-term rental properties in the metropolitan area. In a referendum this week, a ballot measure to curb Airbnb passed by a nearly two-thirds majority. The new rules block short-term rentals only when the “host” tenant or property owner do not live on site. If a homeowner-host is present, daily and weekly rentals are okay. The effort is intended to curb disruptive guests and hold the line on rents, which have been climbing as properties become more lucrative to landlords when turned into de facto hotels instead of permanent homes for renters.
East Hampton’s only meaningful attempt to do something about short-term rentals was a mandatory registry, but it has proven ineffectual, adding a burden for law-abiding property owners while not bringing the huge number of scofflaws into compliance.
How big is the problem? It is difficult to say. Feeling the heat, Airbnb changed its web listings, capping generic searches at 300 and making it impossible to know the number of rentals in a particular locale. Nonetheless, even by this rough count, there are more than 1,800 listings in East Hampton Town alone — roughly 10 percent of the total number of houses.
Not all of the hosts are mom-and-pop residents trying to make ends meet. Evolve, a rental management company, handles more than 370 listings across New York State and New Jersey, including one on Ditch Plains Road in Montauk. Nor does Airbnb make it difficult to spot violations: Guest reviews make it clear that many East End properties are illegally rented multiple times in a month all season long. For example, Leanna, a host with three East Hampton rental units, had 26 glowing reviews for her three East Hampton-area listings in September alone.
Airbnb isn’t the only player by any means. VRBO, Vacation Rentals by Owner, has hundreds of listings as well — many with more reviews than would be allowed under the town’s cap of not more than two tenants in a six-month period — some posting official town rental registry numbers along with descriptions of amenities. Most, however, fail to list the mandatory registry information. Whatever enforcement there is, its effectiveness is about zero.
There is some low-hanging fruit for town officials eager to improve access to housing for the area’s young families and workers. They just need to go for it by cracking down on one of the major economic factors responsible for the shortage — short-term rentals.