One number stood out during the May 10 town board meeting — 1,800, the approximate number of unbuilt parcels of land in East Hampton. The figure was offered up during an extended discussion of the pressing need for year-round places to live. But very few of the vacant sites are likely to be developed with housing priced within the means of most working people; many contain wetlands or are constrained in some way. Others are held by investors, who, judging from the current wave of speculative building, are looking to cash out in a hurry.
Demand for affordable residences is high. More than 500 people applied for one of the 37 apartments in the Gansett Meadows complex before it opened in 2020. Then there are the hundreds whose names do not appear on the official lists who, instead, hope for a miracle in the private market. Town officials have plans in varying stages to add between 100 and 120 new units.
There is another number that needs to be looked at: how many houses, apartments, and rooms that might otherwise be affordable if websites that facilitate short-term rentals did not exist. There were more than 1,600 “stays” suitable for two adults listed in East Hampton on Airbnb as of this week. Few of the 1,600 would be within most wage-earners’ budgets. For example, a two-bedroom cottage with a pool in Wainscott was priced at $1,450 a night. In Springs, a three-bedroom close to the firehouse was about $650 a night.
Most, if not nearly all, of the Airbnb hosts in East Hampton Town are breaking the law. Whether they know it or not, there is no chance that they will be prosecuted. The town’s limit on short-term rentals has never been enforced in any broad sense. A supposedly mandatory property registry once heralded as an answer has largely fallen by the wayside. A crackdown on the short-term industry would be hugely unpopular with the “hosts,” as Airbnb calls landlords. However with a 5-to-0 lock on the town board, the Democrats now in power could withstand the fallout.
The boom in vacation rentals did not get any attention during the May 10 town board meeting, just as it has been mostly ignored since Airbnb and its competitors became a thing more than a decade ago. Until their impact is honestly assessed, any discussion about housing will remain incomplete.