Finding Compromise to Live an Affordable and Comfortable Life

The living room of Susan Menu's Springs home. Michael Heller photos

Some might say the East End as a whole is struggling to cope with its own successes. Many of its residents might say they’re simply struggling.

Take, for instance, the issues of employers’ inability to retain workers, volunteer fire departments’ lack of helping hands and traffic congestion that seemingly keeps growing summer to summer, all of which have been cited by government officials, nonprofit entities and local folks alike as problems that stem directly from an ongoing affordable housing crisis. The crisis is one that reaches across demographics, with a lack of housing for workers, senior citizens, the disabled, young people just starting out on their own and others.

“The need clearly is outpacing the supply,” says Catherine Casey, the executive director of the East Hampton Housing Authority.

According to Casey, there are at least 500 people on combined waiting lists for all of the housing authority’s properties in East Hampton, and reports when the county’s Section 8 subsidy program opened up applications in 2018, more than 4,000 people signed up. In Southampton, Diana Weir says there’s more than 1,000 people on a waiting list.

Weir, who is Southampton’s director of housing and community development, says those people look like “everybody you know.”

“Single people, seniors, single parents and a regular family unit,” she says. “They might be looking for a home, they might be looking for a rental.”

But there’s good news, Casey says. Right now, the term “affordable housing” is “less of a four-letter word.”

“Progress is being made, definitely,” she says. “We are in a political and social cycle where affordable housing is recognized as a need by more people now. Some decades the attitude is if you can’t afford to live here, live someplace else. And some decades the attitude is we need to provide housing for the people who keep this place going.”

People relying on affordable housing often arrive home on different roads.

Rosemarie Kogut, 85, who lives on her Social Security check, pays around $300 per month for a one-bedroom unit in the Avallone Apartments in Montauk. Kogut has been at Avallone for three years and while she can’t recall exactly how much time she spent waiting on a lottery list, she says “it wasn’t too long.” Before she moved in, she was renting elsewhere in Montauk for $1,200. The place is going for $1,900 a month now, she recently heard.

“There are a lot of people on the waiting list. It’s horrible, it really is,” Kogut says. “A lot of people can’t afford a high rent.”

Her income is stretched so thin she only gives her 10 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren gifts on special occasions.

“When you go to the grocery stores here in Montauk, the prices are very high,” she says. “I have five kids, and if I had to buy groceries now, I wouldn’t be able to afford it.”

She’s happy at Avallone, where the East Hampton Housing Authority is in the process of renovating the units.

“I have a new bathroom, a new kitchen, all wood floors,” Kogut says. “The kitchen is the type where you can only cook, but in the living room area I have a small table where I can sit and eat. I have a couch and a chair and a TV. It’s very, very nice.”

Susan Menu, 77, has a table and a couch and a chair, too. But hers are in Springs off the back of the house owned by her son and daughter-in-law — in a 600-square-foot apartment she herself paid to have built under East Hampton Town’s accessory apartment law.

The kitchen at Susan Menu’s Springs home.
The bathroom at Susan Menu’s Springs home.
The bedroom at Susan Menu’s Springs home.

It cost her about $170,000 “for every single thing, including the sheets and pillowcases,” she says, and it took about six months to build. She sold her four-bedroom, 2,700-square foot Amagansett house, which had a pool, to help fund the construction.

“It looked just like this, but it was big,” she says. “When the kids left, the house was too much. It was costing me $700 a month to heat in the winter.”

Her biggest expense, she says, was a brand-new septic system that cost more than $12,000. She tapped East End Excavating to install it, calling them top-notch. She said it’s important if you’re building accessory apartments to always go for the best contractors.

“You could probably have done it cheaper, but you don’t want to mess around,” she says.

Menu says she has “not suffered from going from a big house to a little house,” but admits she misses having a pool.

She’s not retired yet, but she knows that day will come sometime. Her accessory apartment will help her remain in place, rather than having to move somewhere with a cheaper cost of living.

“I’m very happy here,” Menu says. “It’s attached to my son’s house, but it’s completely private. I’m still working, but there will come a time when I’m not working. My son will be feeding me mashed potatoes and he’ll only have to walk across the deck.”

How the region’s housing situation grew out of hand is fairly easy to pinpoint: real estate values have risen dramatically over the years.

The New York Timesreported in October 2018 that across “the Hamptons,” in 1998, median prices were $244,000 but would go on to see “a bigger increase than even Manhattan experienced” over the next decade. Town and Country Real Estate reports indicate for 2008, the median Sag Harbor Village home price was $1.1 million; in the greater Sag Harbor area, including Noyac and North Haven, it was $799,000; in East Hampton, Wainscott and Montauk, it was $875,000. A decade later, median home prices were $1.377 million in Sag Harbor Village; $1.188 million in the greater Sag Harbor area; $990,000 in East Hampton and Wainscott, and $1.175 million in Montauk. The North Fork and Shelter Island lag behind the South Fork in real estate values, but have played some catch-up over the last few years.

Enter the Peconic Bay Region Community Preservation Fund (CPF).

The legislation, passed by voter referendum in 1998, added a 2-percent transfer tax to real estate sales that goes to fund town preservation projects such as land conservation, purchases of development rights, historic restorations and recreational easements. It’s hard to argue the East End landscape has not benefited from open space preservation, but there has been “a real deleterious effect” on affordable housing “when the towns have this money to buy land,” Weir says.

“The cost of land is prohibitive. It’s not the house that is expensive,” she explains. “You can build a pretty nice three-bedroom house for $250,000. It’s the cost of the land that’s prohibitive here. It’s half a million for half an acre. Part of the challenge was when the CPF started, then you had the towns buying properties. It’s a matter of supply and demand. The less supply there is, the more demand there is, which raises the price.”

The region’s status as a tourist destination also contributes, Weir says.

Experts say individuals and families should pay no more than 30 percent of their income on rent, but if your monthly rent is $3,000, which is not uncommon here, do the math. That’s $36,000 per year — forgetting utilities for a moment — on rent alone. That means the tenant or household would have to income nearing $120,000. While salaries on Long Island are typically higher than those in other parts of the country — the United States Census Bureau’s American Community Survey in 2017 reported a median salary of $61,372 for the entire country, $108,133 for Nassau County and $94,750 for Suffolk County — the cost of housing is also significantly higher as well. Data from 2017 shows that around 31 percent of Long Island homeowners spend 35 percent or more of their income on housing, compared with 21 percent nationwide.

Rents for town and housing authority units are governed by United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) income guidelines, which are adjusted by region to take cost-of-living into account.

In 2018, in Nassau and Suffolk Counties, HUD said low-income households ranged from $61,350 for a single person to $87,600 for a family of four; very-low income households ranged from $40,850 for a single person to $58,350 for a family of four; and extremely low-income households ranged from $24,500 for a single person to $35,000 for a family of four. Applications for affordable housing units — including those from people who apply for subsidies like “Section 8” vouchers — are vetted thoroughly using these guidelines.

In Southampton, Weir says, for a one-bedroom apartment, that translates to a maximum monthly rent of $1,168 for very low and extremely low-income residents and $1,518 for the low-income group. Subsidies could further lower those amounts.

But it’s not just about rentals. Towns across the East End are building affordable units to sell as houses or condominiums, with covenants that will guarantee they stay within the inventory and cannot be “flipped.”

“You have to look at out-of-the-box ways to help individuals and families get into home ownership,” says Peter J. Elkowitz Jr, president and chief executive officer of the Long Island Housing Partnership. “It’s definitely difficult, but there are programs and people are exploring ways to do it.”

The Sandy Hollow affordable housing development in Southampton. Diana Weir photo

The housing partnership handles lotteries and counsels both potential renters and potential buyers of affordable units on behalf of Southampton Town, Weir explains. People purchasing townhouse units, such as those at Southampton Pointe in Tuckahoe, have to present full financial documentation and qualify for mortgages.

“We’re not going to put people in housing they’re going to foreclose on,” Weir says.

Of the first 90 people whose names were drawn in the lottery for Southampton Pointe — where 15 of the 50 units are designated as “affordable” under state law — eight people have completed the process and qualified. A total of 280 people signed up for the lottery for those 15 units.

Casey expects a groundbreaking on the East Hampton Housing Authority’s latest development, Gansett Meadow, by the end of April. A separate project, East Hampton Town’s Manor Houses on Accabonac Road, is substantially complete, she said, and the town is also in the process of buying approximately four acres on Route 114 in Wainscott from Triune Baptist Church for $900,000.

Casey says her organization is currently vetting two more sites for potential developments, but declined to identify them. The danger that people will start to shout “not in my back yard” – the voices of the NIMBYs – all-too-often has an impact on whether or not a project gets built.

“I won’t say simply because it complicates things,” she says. “It makes it harder for us to buy something.”

In many cases, the community shouts down affordable housing projects with lawsuits, delaying the developments or even killing them altogether. That was the case in Wainscott in 2015 when residents and representatives of the Wainscott Common School District came out to oppose a 49-unit complex proposed off of Stephen Hands Path. And that’s the case in Southampton now, where a 60-unit development is proposed for a 9.4-acre parcel the town would purchase from Southampton Full Gospel Church.

“There’s already complaints. People came out against it,” Weir says. The nonprofit organization proposing the project, Concern for Independent Living, doesn’t even have a formal application into the town yet.

“What happens when you want to build affordable housing is you say, ‘There’s a need,’ and people say yes,” Weir says. “We say we’re going to build a development on this street and everyone goes, ‘What? You’re building it next to me? No!’ They all come out of the woodwork. Too much traffic, too much water. They want it, but they don’t want it next to them.”

Housing experts say it’s going to take a sea change, a combination of solutions, to effect large-scale change.

“Our town tries to incentivize [affordable housing] by reducing fees,” Weir said. “We use our zoning powers to try to enhance that or create more housing.”

Southampton updated its accessory apartment law in January 1 of this year to reduce the minimum lot size required for people who want to build an accessory apartment in their homes from three-quarters of an acre to one-half acre. The new rules also axed the previous requirement that tenants be family, work as emergency responders or work in or for the town, and established limits on the rent that can be charged. The new law excluded highly populated areas of the town, and specifically identified ideal hamlets as Bridgehampton, Water Mill, Noyac, North Sea, Tuckahoe, Eastport, Flanders, Northampton and Westhampton.

“We’ve had about a dozen inquiries,” Weir says. “There’s nothing yet. It wouldn’t even be that fast. They have to get into the planning department.”

East Hampton Town had updated its accessory apartment law in 2016 to allow attached accessory apartments between 300 and 600 square feet on properties that meet certain minimum size requirements. Its rules state the apartment can only be “for the year-round occupancy of an East Hampton Town resident” with a maximum occupancy of two people. It was through this change in code that Menu was able to construct her own apartment.

Elkowitz says finding ways to collaborate on housing is also critical.

“The importance really is to not only look at housing that’s being built but possibly other ways to create housing opportunities,” he says, “like assisting with down payments or working with employers to try to obtain housing where the employer also takes a stake in the employee purchasing a house.”

The Long Island Housing Partnership is working with BNB Bank and Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, to name just two, to encourage them to help their staff find housing.

According to Claudia Pilato, BNB’s director of marketing, says the company’s upper management has embraced the program since Deborah McGrory, senior vice president and director of human resources, first pitched it in 2010.

“BNB believes its employees are its strongest resource and has invested in their career development,” McGrory said, “but we took it a step further, because life is not all about work. … Sometimes buying a home, for a young professional, seems far out of reach.  It is so rewarding to hear from recipients on how being able to buy a home on Long Island, near family, is life changing.”

BNB has around 500 employees. Between 10 and 20 participate in a lottery system each year for grants of $5,000 toward down payment assistance, Ms. Pilato explains.

“Since [2010] we have had around five recipients each year, but last year we increased it to seven, given the growth in our employee population,” she says.

Elkowitz says the Long Island Housing Partnership also offers funding for people to repair homes that might be cheaper because they’re fixer-uppers.

“We have an aging housing stock on Long Island in total,” Elkowitz says. “How do we fix a window or repair a roof? If someone gets a break on a house, they can make repairs.”

He also says affordable housing built in the right places can help turn around languishing downtown areas.

“You saw it in Patchogue. That whole downtown has been revitalized,” Elkowitz says. “It brought in may more restaurants and much more nightlife. People aren’t just closing up shop at 5 p.m. Riverhead is starting to redevelop in that way as well. It takes time, but there are many places as you go west where this is being done.”

Casey cites a comment that New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. has made — “We can’t build our way out of this. We have to come up with legislation.” She also said public-private partnerships need to be encouraged.

“The accessory apartments must be more enticing,” she says. “There must be some incentive for the private sector and we have to repurpose properties. Get creative with zoning so you can have the density. The town couldn’t possibly do it all, and the housing authority can’t possibly do it all.”

But solutions need to come, leaders say. The viability of the East End community is at stake.

“We all get along and the manager is very nice here” at Avallone in Montauk, Kogut says. “I have some money in the bank, but it’s all going downhill. When I don’t have any more money, well, I don’t know.”