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The Mast-Head: Out of the Box

Thu, 10/07/2021 - 11:20

The past year and a half has seemed remarkable in many respects here in East Hampton, and among the things that appear new to me is a deepening frustration with the East End’s direction. People are exasperated at the crowds, the traffic, the noise.

They are upset by the ignorance of tradition and indifference to nature. They are saddened by the supersizing of houses and changing streetscapes. Cherished places to get away from it all are now overrun. The internet amplifies word of mouth and so such secrets are no more. They wonder, “Can the genie be put back in its bottle?”

A reader commented this week about two recent editorials. One was about a new transfer tax for affordable housing and the other, East Hampton Town’s $5.5 million deal to buy a massive historic house in Montauk. Was the juxtaposition between these intentional, the reader asked, the conflict, the contradiction? Sadly no, I had not noticed it until it was pointed out to me. Why not, the reader proposed, use some of the newly purchased Carl Fisher house as rooms where people who work locally could stay?

“Sadly,” our reader observed, “it really does seem like the housing construction and development forces over the last 10 years that have driven tear-downs of existing housing stock and rebuilds of very expensive large houses on mostly small half-acre lots have massively crushed any true effort for reasonably priced housing, thus even out-pricing all middle class folk: teachers, police, etc., unless their families owned land and houses here for generations.”

Turning the many-bedroom Fisher house over would send a ferret up the trousers of some people, notably the Montauk Historical Society leadership, but it is a decent idea. On Martha’s Vineyard, a community housing trust has done just that by buying existing residences in some cases, working with developers (gasp!) in others to build the island’s supply. Notably, government has mostly taken a back seat to these successful nonprofit initiatives.

Advocates there are hopeful that a 2-percent transfer tax like the half-percent one proposed here would massively increase their options. The Martha’s Vineyard money would fund not just outright purchases of existing short-term rentals to convert to stable, year-round residences, but create a low-interest down payment fund for qualifying home buyers. The Island Housing Trust advises landowners on discounted property sales or donations to the Island Housing Trust that can provide tax benefits to those faced with significant estate or capital gains taxes.

Out-of-box thinking is essential in finding solutions to the South Fork housing crisis. With the Fisher house neutralized, could a several-unit affordable cluster of houses be built on the seven-plus-acre property? If it is out of the question, it shouldn’t be.

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