How to spur private development of affordable housing has been a puzzle for town officials for years. Now they plan to tackle the supply side of the problem by loosening the rules governing where apartments and cottages can be located and under what circumstances they can be rented out. This is well intended — East Hampton has a profound shortage of places for working people to live — but could have unintended consequences.
Foremost in the town board’s desire to encourage property owners to add rental apartments and cottages is a change that would allow for them on half-acre lots, a significant step down from the current roughly three-quarter minimum. This would mean that one would not have to be the owner of quite so large a residential property to take advantage of the program. But this could also add density in areas of town where houses are already packed close together, Springs and parts of Amagansett, for example.
A cap on the number of people living in one of the new dwellings created under the code would be eliminated, further risking overcrowding in some neighborhoods — without the benefit of townwide strategic planning and infrastructure improvements. Where they would go would be controlled in only the most cursory way.
One and two-bedroom apartments of up to 1,200 square feet would now be legal. Rents would be capped at 1.3 times the annual Nassau-Suffolk fair market figures — about $2,000 a month for a one-bedroom and close to $3,000 for a two-bedroom.
As many as 40 new apartments and cottages could be built in each school district, again, without the benefit of spreading the potential extra load evenly had there been an overarching plan. Landlords could also continue to rent out separate guestrooms, thereby not cutting themselves off from the potential for hefty vacation-rental additional income if they also wanted to add an “affordable” unit.
The changes’ biggest question marks are a proposed lifting of a rule that only year-round town residents could be renters and the removal of the current minimum one-year lease requirement. Once approved by the town and built, there would be very little to assure that additional living spaces did not end up as short-term rentals. The town already has proven unwilling to take on the many hundreds of AirBnb hosts here, and there is no indication that this aspect of the plan would do anything but make things worse. We cannot reasonably expect that officials are magically going to begin enforcing existing rental laws should the proposal be approved.
A positive change, however, would be to allow part-time residential property owners to take advantage. It made little sense that someone who spent the winter in, say, Florida could not be part of the affordable housing solution if he or she wished.
We sympathize with the position that the town board is in. Earlier attempts to encourage building more private lower-cost rentals have had marginal success, and many people who would like to live here are being priced out of the market. However, barring additional guardrails, this proposal could unleash a monster beyond the town’s ability to contain it. Sharper revisions — and an effective enforcement mechanism — are needed.