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Build/Unbuild


The near-absence of economically accessible community housing in East Hampton is stunning. According to officials, less than 3% of total housing units in town qualify as “affordable.” Lack of affordable housing, whether for rent or for purchase, is a problem all over America, in cities big and small, as well as in most resort-economy-based towns, either snow-driven or beach-based.


But no matter how widespread the problem, given the astounding amount of wealth that sloshes around our 70 square miles, that fact that there is virtually no dependable sufficient availability of year-round, quality affordable housing in East Hampton – let alone accommodations for seasonal workers upon which our economy and local business owners are dependent —is absolutely shameful.


And when I say this, I mean not to finger-point at any specific person or entity; many are we frogs who have been boiling for years in this pot of water. Back in 2005, the East Hampton Comprehensive Plan estimated that there would be a need to create another 2,000 affordable housing units over the coming years. I imagine that need has grown.


The upcoming referendum to establish a 0.5% purchaser-paid real estate transfer fee to create the new Community Housing Fund (CHF) brings tangible hope. Millions of dollars collected annually, enhanced by the power of judicious bonding, will be a critical localized resource; the CHF plan envisions about a dozen ways funds might be used.


Even with these monies, it’s going to take some time to dig ourselves out of the hole. With real estate prices being where they are and facing vicious competition from voracious developers for buildable parcels, it will be a challenge for the town to close the gap quickly. Town officials are cautioning: “we won’t be able to build our way out of this crisis.”


I understand the sentiment underlying this cautionary slogan; however, in the short run, we do need to build a way forward. A solution requires some meaningful amount of new construction to jump start economically accessible housing supply, including additional multiunit projects similar to Gansett Meadow, what is being planned at 395 Pantigo or Route 114, building or finding opportunities to convert single-family into two-family residences, as well as adding affordable accessory dwelling units on individual properties.

I fully support the CHF, and I’ve spent a good amount of time engaging with fellow citizens to educate about and advocate for it over these last months. Nearly everyone I’ve chatted with acknowledges the crisis and reason for the CHF. However, a substantial number are not yet comfortable with how the money will be spent. The most common objection I and others hear expressed is: “I don’t want more ‘density’ in East Hampton.”

So, I recently crunched some numbers that might put things in perspective to address this fear.


Many will be familiar with the new eight-lot subdivision on Handy Lane in Amagansett. However, I’m not sure everyone understands the full magnitude of what is being done there by the NYC-based spec developer. The lots range between 0.29 and 0.83 and total 4.3 acres. They’ve been cleared 100%, stripped of all their woodlands, wildlife habitat and natural soil biome. The eight new houses together add up to 41,947 square feet of living space, with a total of 51 bedrooms and 65 bathrooms. In addition, there are eight pools, eight pool houses, and a lot of hardscape. If sold at the listing prices, this will be a $46.2 million payday to the developer and perhaps yield $2.8 million in commissions to the enabling real estate brokers.


But Handy Lane isn’t just a one-off. As developers continue to strip mine the land, they’ve been reshaping East Hampton with a massive increase in density over the last five years. Some more data: right now, of the 400+ properties in East Hampton listed for sale on Zillow there are 98 new mega-millions, spec-construction houses being marketed. In total, it’s nearly 600 thousand square feet of additional living space, adding theoretical occupancy of perhaps 1000 more persons.


Now THAT is a lot of density...and it’s made even more outrageous when we consider that this is some of the most extractive, non-productive land use possible. This is just a current for-sale snapshot -- it doesn’t include everything else that is currently being built or working its way through the permitting pipeline, let alone all that’s been completed during this multi-year frenzy.


I find the "I want affordable housing, but I don’t want more density" concern mostly misplaced. It should not be a reason to vote “no”on the CHF referendum.


Is it not inconsistent to oppose well-regulated 600 or 800 square-foot ADUs while accepting endless construction of hulking 6,000 or 8,000 square-foot new luxury second (or third or fourth...) homes, along with all their accessory amenities maxing out lots from corner to corner?


How can people look derisively upon a new complex that might house 15-20 hard working families, yet not object to 15- or even 20-thousand, 3-level monoliths rising on 2- to 4-acre lots?


Why are people suspicious about “who” exactly will be allowed to live in a new affordable apartment in East Hampton, fretting that they might not be “from here,” but yet show no concern that much of new single-family home development in East Hampton these days is obscured behind LLCs, being financed by mysterious, far-flung so-called investors and anonymous entities wanting to park money in Hamptons’ piggy banks, let alone not worrying about transient population streaming in and out of these big houses when many of them turn into seasonal or illegal short-term rentals?


If we’re to fully address our affordable housing crisis we need to build as well as “unbuild” our way out. By unbuild, I mean two things. First, apply the brakes to these ongoing perverse, profligate developer-driven land use trends. I’m not talking about just pumping the brakes—I think we need to slam on them before we go fully off the cliff.


And by unbuild, I also mean that town zoning code begs meaningful adjustment. Our code allows these speculators to overdevelop, in a process known as “as-of-right,” because the current suite of dimensional allowances is far too generous. All building metrics – among them, house size, coverage and clearing ratios – need to be scaled back, and many of the review and approval processes for demolitions and expansive new development should be rethought.


Only by adding rational restraint in the zoning code will we begin to restore balance, start to reverse the damage, and create space to adequately address this affordable housing crisis.

So, there are two things I hope citizens will do. First, on November 8, flip the ballot and vote ”yes” on Proposition #3; and second, reach out to our Town Board to urge them to evolve the code.


(This piece first appeared as a Letter-to-the-Editor in the East Hampton Star in the October 27, 2022 edition)

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