Business Panelists Ponder Worker Housing

Dormitories? Trailers?
Jeffrey Freireich, Paul Monte, Tom Ruhle, and Catherine Casey discussed the need for workforce housing with members of the East Hampton Business Alliance at CittaNuova restaurant in East Hampton yesterday. Morgan McGivern

The need for seasonal work-force housing is a crisis that only a multifaceted approach will resolve, according to those who spoke yesterday at a breakfast symposium organized by the East Hampton Business Alliance.  Loosening regulations on single-family houses, raising income levels for eligibility for affordable housing, and allowing dormitories and campers and trailers were among the ideas put on the table.

The gathering followed Monday night’s meeting of the Amagansett Citizens Advisory Committee, where a proposed 40-unit housing complex was debated. (A separate story on that meeting appears online.)

The business community supports housing for seasonal employees, while the Amagansett proposal, Jeffrey Freireich, the executive director of the Business Alliance, said, brought out “classic cries of NIMBYism,” or “not in my backyard.”

Taking a prominent part in the conversation yesterday at Cittanuova, a Newtown Lane restaurant, was Paul Monte of Montauk, where the problem of where to house seasonal employees is the town’s most extreme. But all of the town’s service industries depend on a seasonal work-force, Mr. Monte, president of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce and a longtime executive of Gurney’s Inn, said. “There is no affordable housing for those folks anymore. The stock that was here was never sufficient. As times, as demographics, and as the market has changed, it’s just gotten progressively worse.”

At the same time, however, Mr. Monte said there was no shortage of available property that could be used for new housing. “We need a combined will of the people, the political machine, and the business community joining together and creating a force that can look at this problem and deal with it, as many resort areas have. . . . There are solutions out there.”

Such solutions, he said, would have to include improved sewage treatment, without which higher density housing would be precluded. “We can’t bury our heads in the sand — no pun intended — anymore,” he said. “We’ve got to encourage improving systems that are currently in use, and we’ve got to encourage installing systems that will be better for the future. That will increase density in a controlled way.” He called for a town program that “incentivizes property owners to look at the possibilities that currently exist. . . . If you can put an apartment above your store, let’s not make it a three-year process of permits and fighting with individual departments. Let’s try to streamline that process, let’s issue some tax credits to encourage people to do it, and let’s try to work with what we have in hand right now and improve that way. That’s one small piece of the puzzle.”

Mr. Monte suggested vacant land near East Hampton Airport as a potential site for inexpensive housing, along with provisions for transportation to and from workers’ jobs.  Transportation, similar to that provided for senior citizens, would have to be a component in the housing of seasonal workers. “We don’t want to encourage them to come out here with cars,” he said. The Long Island Rail Road tracks are used just four hours a day, “and they can’t figure out a way to put a light rail system in between Hampton Bays and Montauk,” he said.

The only way to address the housing shortage, said Catherine Casey, executive director of the East Hampton Housing Authority, is through “diverse programs that create a variety of different types of unit, public/private partnerships, some in private homes, some on commercial properties, town-sponsored projects.” The more variety, she said, “the better chance of creating something that will have a direct benefit to the community. Housing is not one size fits all.”

Ms. Casey referred to state legislation introduced last year by Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. that would authorize the five East End towns to create a fund to help residents achieve homeownership. Residents with incomes at or under 120 percent of Suffolk County’s median family income would be eligible for the program. A $10-per-square-foot fee on residential construction in excess of 3,000 square feet would finance the fund, a scheme the East End committee of the Long Island Builders Institute quickly came out against. “We’ll see how that goes in Albany,” Ms. Casey said.

 Also taking part in the discussion was Tom Ruhle, the town’s director of housing. He disagreed with Mr. Monte about the availability of appropriate property for new housing and took aim at the community preservation fund. Most of the town “is either developed or preserved,” he said, creating tension between the need for low and middle-income housing and a tightening supply. “Buying land so nothing is built on there, making it a much more desirable community, which is good for everyone that owns property here, but more and more difficult to afford to live here.” He likened the town’s efforts to provide affordable housing to “a bathtub running with the drain open. . . . The more we build, it gets worse every day.”

 “This community cannot turn into a community that is only open from Memorial Day to Columbus Day and then stores are boarded up and everybody leaves, because that’s what the economy devolves into if we don’t have a year-round workforce that keeps the place running, that keeps the fire department running.”

Where do we start? Mr. Freireich asked the panelists. Mr. Monte replied. “You make a list and pick some of the easily attainable things and pursue those. Then you start to chip away at the ones that will take longer. The list is there. You need the political will, the will of the people, and the business community, “ he said. “You need to put together a coalition to address this, because workforce housing, affordable housing, these are community initiatives, not business initiatives. . . . These are things that make a community. If you have no seasonal business, especially here, you have no community,” the economy goes down the drain.”