East Hampton will never build its way out of its housing crisis. That much is certain. While public and private foundation efforts to create places for the work force and retirees to live continue, the East Hampton Housing Authority’s waitlist is said to have thousands of names. Consequently, at the rate new units become available, it would take more than 100 years to clear the list — if the need remained flat.
Housing on the South Fork has long been dealt with as a supply problem, but it is really one of demand. As businesses grow and the scale and number of houses expand, so does the need for people to operate and maintain them. Consider the much-loathed Trade Parade backups on Sunrise Highway: There have always been able construction, pool, landscape, and so on companies in Southampton and East Hampton, only now the work outstrips the workers. It’s the same thing with the resort sector. As hotels convince officials to allow them to add bars, food service, even clothing boutiques, the demand for people to staff them rises.
The ill effect of growth is not limited to employers’ problems keeping up, even if officials and civic groups have tended to ignore the warning signs. At least since the 1970s, there has been concern about the land’s capacity to bear the load, but attention was inadequately paid to the other effects, on roads, utilities, wastewater, ambulance, and other infrastructure, and, of course, the work force.
Every election cycle, the party that is out of power in Town Hall complains that not enough is being done to allow young people to remain here. The observation is correct, generally, but the solutions are either not thought out or unrealistic. For one, allowing apartments or second residences on an existing property tends to feed the short-term rental market, where more money can be made with less wear and tear for the landlords.
The incorporated villages make things worse. As new businesses and residential developments are planned, there is an inherent assumption that the workers to staff, clean, or service them will live elsewhere. Sag Harbor may or may not welcome a new and bigger Bay Street Theater, but we can be sure that without major public pressure, its backers will not be forced to provide places for its employees to live. In East Hampton Village, a planned central sewage treatment plant will allow much-greater commercial density and additional housing units, but consideration must be given to the long-term effects. And, as Sagaponack welcomes new, ever-grander houses, few if any affordable places to live are ever considered.
Solutions to the housing problem are complex and will take time to work out, but there is one thing that towns and villages can commit to right now: adopting as close to a zero-growth policy until better options are found so that the problem isn’t made worse.