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April 10th, 2006

The Myth & The Misses: The State of Affordable Housing in the Hamptons

by Sean Jaeger

Looking for affordable housing in the Hamptons? No problemo. Just follow the bicycles home from the nearest seven eleven. Hey, it beats following the shopping cart trails into the woods along Montauk Highway and the railroad tracks, where the homeless live. But like everything else affordable housing comes down to a question of definition. And the biggest question for affordable housing is: Who is going to get it?

When the issue comes up in town meetings and local newspapers somehow it becomes a question of housing for the next generation. Figures come out like housing prices are up 81 per cent over the last five years and incomes up only 14 per cent. The old rule of thumb is housing should cost three times annual income. That means even a family earning a hundred grand a year should be looking around for a $300,000 house.?Ǭ Good luck in a housing market where the median price is above half a million. But there is a sub-text here. That discussion is all about affordable housing for the children of long time residents- locals. None of this comes anywhere near the range of what a day laborer making $250 a week or some one shoveling sandwiches and coffee over a deli counter for $7.00 an hour can afford.

All of a sudden it’s not about affordable housing for the poor anymore. This is about making housing affordable for people quite a few steps up the ladder. And some of the tax money going to make that possible would come from people who don’t have as much as the people looking for houses do.

Not that it is going to make a lot of difference. The two most prominent affordable housing projects recently both involved a lottery to select lucky winners, for 8 units in Bridgehampton for a lot less that 200 grand a piece and 26 in Green Hollow Woods in East Hampton. That’s going to make a big dent in the housing problem, right?

Believe it or not there are murmurings of some affordable housing in Westhampton Beach, just north of Montauk Highway and west of Old Riverhead Road. But that is still under moratorium, in planning stages, pending zoning changes. In other words this project remains a long ways from even being a hole in the ground.

Is there much more affordable housing on the horizon? Somebody who should know, a veteran of Suffolk county politics put it this way. “Affordable housing? It’s not going to happen.”

In fact a lot of the existing patchwork of affordable housing is at risk. Town officials up and down Long Island are looking to crack down on what they call over crowded rental properties with code enforcement swat teams.?Ǭ They called it “Operation Firestorm” in Brookhaven, when officials raided houses for code violations and evicted tenants on the spot, creating some instant homelessness. Since the raids occurred with no warning, no notice, and no search warrants, or any of that constitutional stuff, a federal judge issued a stern “no-no” of her own and ruled advance warning must be given. No more surprise dawn raids.

Long Island has relied on migrant labor since the time of the pilgrims, when boat-loads of indentured Irish servants came ashore. But the Hispanic population in Long Island is going up about as fast as housing prices and many residents are having a little trouble adjusting to both. Somehow there are plenty of people to hire the workers congregating in makeshift outdoor hiring halls. That’s why they come here, because this is where the work is. But there is no rush to build affordable housing for them. Not too many seem to want the lawn guy, the cleaning lady, the bus boy and the dishwasher living next door.?Ǭ So code cops go looking for houses too close to home with too many cars or too many bicycles in the driveway. Summer rentals are one thing but Hernando’s hideaway is a whole different story. Is an illegal basement apartment filled with Irish bartenders or student waitresses any different than a house filled with landscapers and you pick’em laborers?

Let’s face it, the sign on the door is no poor next door. For years real estate brokers have known the area around Green Hollow Woods as a hard sell, even at reduced prices.?Ǭ “Isn’t this near the affordable housing?” customers would ask…and then leave.

Of course, it depends on what is affordable, and for whom. Is it city folks looking for a second home, East Enders looking for a first home, or newcomers looking for any home? For years Shinnecock Hills, Noyac and Hampton Bays had loads of relatively cheap houses. But somehow those houses weren’t flying out the door.

Then there is the dirty little secret of affordable housing. The magic word is perpetuity but poison pill works as well. The thing is, in a rising market last year’s affordable housing can be this year’s goldmine. Buy something cheap enough and eventually it can be worth a lot more than some lucky buyer paid for it. It all depends on point of view. This could be called a successful project where families blossomed and home prices soared and the neighborhood gentrified itself. Or it could be called making out like a bandit. Rumors still circulate that some special friends got special favors the last time affordable housing hit the market in Southampton, many moons ago, which is one of the reasons the name of the game now is lotteries for that clean look. The idea of perpetuity is to make sure no one can sell affordable housing for a profit. But for most people the whole point of buying a house is to move up in the world, get on the first step of that ladder for more, better, bigger. The perpetuity poison pill says this is as good as it is ever going to get. While property values down the road and around the corner go up, houses with a covenant like this will stay frozen in time.

In the days of Mac-mansions it is easy to forget that when Long Island made suburbs a household name after WWII it was with the affordable housing of Levittown. Next year Levittown will be 60 years old. The first houses on the potato fields sold for less than $7000, many to GI’s back from the war. That was affordable housing, even then. Now some of those houses are for sale on the high side of half a million bucks.

Less than 20 years ago they were practically giving away land in the great woods of Southampton and East Hampton, north of the highway and south of Peconic Bay. Only a couple of years ago there was some real affordable houses on Sunrise Avenue, just over the tracks from Bridgehampton. That was before it got redeveloped.

Looking for affordable housing? Follow those bicycles. Or jump in the car and join the trade parade going west after a hard day’s work. Move to Mastic. Scoot on down to Shirley. Find Flanders. That is if the bargains there aren’t already all gone. *

Filed Under: Articles | Politics | the Hamptons

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