Help Wanted: For a Lucky Few, the Job Comes with a House

Bay Burger employees Terwanna Harding, Miguel Guerrero and Matt Jackson at work at the restaurant on Monday, June 26. Michael Heller photo
Bay Burger employees Terwanna Harding, Miguel Guerrero and Matt Jackson at work at the restaurant on Monday, June 26. Michael Heller photo

By Christine Sampson

So urgent is the need for workforce housing in the Sag Harbor area, local business owners say, that some of them have actually had to become landlords in order to cope with the problem.

Among them are Joe and Liza Tremblay, who own Bay Burger, and Ken O’Donnell, who owns La Superica. Both the Tremblays and Mr. O’Donnell said buying their own staff housing has helped alleviate the problem, but only to a degree.

After all, businesses that own housing, like other property owners in town, must still conform to local codes mandating that no more than four unrelated people can live in a house together.

“There’s no solution. It’s not solved,” Mr. Tremblay said in an interview this week. “Providing housing helps, but we have 20 staff members in a summer. It’s not everything, but it helps us get some strong people in.”

The Tremblays bought a house for their staff after years of renting homes for them. As house prices continued to climb, they said they had to look farther and farther afield from their restaurant on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike, which they opened in 2006, to find suitable housing. They were concerned, they said, because not only did their employees need an affordable place to stay, but it had to be close to the restaurant because not all of them had cars.

The Tremblays said they have housed employees with family members and even invited them to stay in their own home.

Mr. O’Donnell, who took over La Superica in 1997, became a landlord in 2000. His kitchen staff members live in the house he purchased as workforce housing. It’s about one-and-a-quarter miles away from the restaurant. The employees living there don’t pay rent, which sweetens the deal of working for the restaurant, he said.

“That’s one less headache, trying to find housing for them,” he said in an interview this week. “When your employees don’t have to worry about housing, it definitely helps retain them.”

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That, in turn, helps make the business run more smoothly. Retaining the staff means the food and service stay high quality, he said, which makes for a better customer experience.

“I believe it has helped keep some consistency and benefits the customers,” Mr. O’Donnell said.

Ms. Tremblay said Bay Burger was in a similar situation.

“That’s why we chose to find a more permanent housing solution,” she said. “We had people we wanted to hold onto, and we were concerned we would lose them if we couldn’t help them find a solution. By and large, over the years our employees are either living in housing that we’ve helped secure for them, or are coming from Riverhead or further away, or they live with their parents. There’s no category that is sustaining themselves in their own way.”

Affordable housing is an issue that has attracted the attention of government officials in both East Hampton and Southampton towns.

About six months ago, East Hampton passed legislation making it easier for homeowners to create accessory apartments in their houses and add apartments to accessory structures such as garages, as long as those apartments conform to affordable housing standards set by the town. The town also recently awarded a contract to build the Manor House Project, a complex of four farmhouses each containing three units that will be sold as condominiums for between $270,000 and $300,000 via a lottery system for applicants who meet affordable housing criteria.

According to Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell, East Hampton currently has about 400 units of affordable housing — “but it is clear the demand is much greater than that and we need to start catching up,” he said.

“It’s one of the most critical issues we face in East Hampton, because the cost of real estate has outstripped local working families’ ability to afford a home or even rent a place to live on a year-round basis,” Mr. Cantwell said. “I think that’s obvious to everybody.”

Southampton Town has two affordable rental projects in progress, one in Speonk and one in Southampton, and has a program in the works to secure third-party funding for accessory apartments in houses that would be designated for the town’s affordable housing program. Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said there have to be multiple strategies in place to tackle the problem.

“We’re victims of our own success, in a way,” he said. “The problem is getting worse faster than we’re making it better.”