Affordable Hamptons Housing After Saving Priceless Parcels?

Like many other affluent suburbs or resort areas, the Hamptons of New York is confronting a housing affordability crisis, which is to say that the service and support industries on which the wealthy residents rely cannot reliably staff their operations from nearby residents.

This pinch results either in unfilled positions or lengthy commutes for the non-wealthy workers. The Hamptons has relatively few rental apartments and only a couple of entry highways, so the inconvenience to these employees is felt also by the privileged townspeople, who must share the same clogged roads. Although there is a progressive contingent that wants a more “inclusive” community for its own sake, it’s fair to say that self-interest is a more compelling reason for expanding the home franchise on the South Fork of Long Island.

And a ripe opportunity for doing so looms this November, thanks to recent state legislation allowing a new tax on residential transactions to be approved by the area’s voters. Already, most of these sales are subject to a 2% levy for land and water conservation, and thanks to the boom in the luxury market, that Community Preservation Fee collected $210 million in the East End towns last year. If the proposed housing tax had been in effect, it would have pulled in $50 million more.

What goes for “affordable housing” nowadays is not cheap to build, but $50 million could deliver a slew of it, perhaps as much as has been constructed in the four decades that the issue has been percolating in the Hamptons. During that time, there’s been a lot more talk than action, not just because land is at a premium but because, when bulldozer comes to scrub brush, there’s usually plenty of neighborhood resistance.  Cue apprehension over congestion, school seats, environmental impacts, etc.

In fact, the topic of lowering payments for new homebuyers had been on the minds of South Fork officials even before local real estate really took off from the 1980s. As Robert Cameron ended his terms as town supervisor in 1971, he told the Southampton Press he was worried that the hamlet of Hampton Bays was becoming “saturated” with Section 235 housing, a Great Society program to provide home loans free of down payments.  Hampton Bays, which has no oceanfront and is west of what is generally considered to be the Hamptons, was largely built out with middle-class bungalows on small lots in the 1960s, and Cameron feared it was taking in future trouble.

To the degree the South Fork has found pockets of affordable housing, they’ve tended to be clumped in those western reaches. A separate, frequent location has been along the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike, in a stretch well removed from both of those two villages proper. (Proximity to a busier roadway is usually an attribute, as residents of such units are considered more transit-dependent.)  But even where such spots are identified and set aside—typically as a dedication by a developer seeking market-price housing approvals—the yield is a handful of homes and the process can take years, if it is approved at all. In one of the cases along that turnpike in the 1980s, a would-be 28-lot plan was lost to the late discovery of night salamanders on the property. A proposal for 50 units of senior housing nearby died about the same time.

But the fundemental economics of housing in the Hamptons was established by the larger land-use battles beginning in the 1970s. That was a time when major developers still envisioned subdivisions of a thousand or more tract homes in the woodlands and former potato fields. Such a buildout, and the zoning that could have permitted it, was junked in favor of large open-space dedications after epic pre-Millennial battles. From then, if middle-class families were to purchase much square-footage, they would need some kind of public assist.

With a more solid Democrat majority in recent decades, East Hampton town has been more assiduous about building subsidized housing than has Southampton, but that is a relative measure. Over four decades, the two localities have added maybe a couple hundred such homes.  

Tom Ruhle, who in recent years has been East Hampton’s housing director, was both a planning and town board member as part of the 1980s preservationist wave there. When I met with him in 2019 in a satellite town office looking over the picturesque ocean bluffs in the hamlet of Amagansett—largely saved from building during those earlier days—he acknowledged with an ironic chuckle the circularity of his career. “People can’t afford to live here,” he said, in part because of his efforts to save the land for the people who lived there.

East Hampton today has new “workforce” housing  afoot, while Southampton’s planning board is weighing objections to two substantial projects. One is in Quiogue, a more rural buffer between the toney villages of Quogue and Westhampton Beach. The other, behind a church property, borders on an old, unadorned neighborhood in Southampton Village. The Quiogue site is well-situated for a looming Amazon distribution center and other industrial employment surrounding the nearby Gabreski Airport –thus likely to keep some newly employed commuters from the congested highways.

The other project would bring further density to a condo-heavy stretch of the county road that brings Sunrise Highway traffic to the South Fork. That is one part of Tuckahoe, another hamlet of the town that often feels saddled with more than its share of higher-density development. In 2020, I spoke with Peter Callos, who’d been a vocal opponent of such activity in the area as impinging on the quality of life for longstanding residents. He, like Tom Ruhle, accepted that curbing supply has the effect of favoring wealthier buyers, but complained the issue was being decided without the public “having a choice.” Incrementally, as only the rich and the policy-favored get to move in, “the town is losing its character,” he said.

If the arc of Hamptons home accessibility could be followed in one political lifetime, it would be Fred Thiele’s. A native son who worked his way through local government as a town attorney and ultimately in 1991 as Southampton supervisor, then went on to Albany as a legislator (an Independent caucusing with Democrats), he kept countless homes from being built while also looking to finance others to be built. Which is to say, he was at the forefront of preserving nature during the critical years, then focused on getting at least some few past the housing-scarcity gate. For a good 20 years he pursued schemes to shift the regional gentry’s bounty into a wage-earner kitty. Finally, he got passed and signed by the governor the tax that will be voted on this fall.

The $50 million or however much it would raise annually could be a turning point.  So, however, will be the cumulative result of the ground-level tussles over each successive project, processes which can take a few years. The tax is table stakes now in the Hamptons. The political poker will have more cards to be dealt.

March 25, 2002

Published by timwferguson

Longtime writer-editor, focusing on topics of business and policy, global and local.

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