East Hampton Town Hall
East Hampton Town Hall | file photo

“It’s no magic bullet, but it will make another contribution to affordable housing for the year-round community,” said East Hampton builder Pat Trunzo, summing up the general public impression of a new tweak in the town code to encourage affordable housing at a public hearing at East Hampton Town Hall last Thursday.

The proposed code change allows affordable apartments in accessory structures and allows homeowners to rent their principal dwelling and move into an affordable unit on their property.

East Hampton has allowed affordable accessory apartments within homes since 1984, but few people have applied for permits for those apartments. In the past, the town has always prohibited the use of accessory buildings as living space.

While public impression was generally favorable, some were concerned that the code change didn’t do enough to address the town’s affordable housing crisis, while others said they believed the accessory dwellings shouldn’t be allowed on lots as small as proposed (properties eligible for the buildings must be at least half an acre).

After about a half-dozen residents spoke, the board held the public hearing open for written comments until Sept. 15. The full text of the proposal is online here.

Everyone who spoke at the Sept. 1 hearing made pointed comments and criticisms.

“You have to appreciate the careful balancing that was done in putting forth this legislation,” said Jeanne Frankl, who serves on the town’s Community Housing Opportunity Fund Committee, which drafted the legislation. “There’s nothing mentioned here that wasn’t carefully weighed.”

The number of affordable apartments allowed under this provision of the code is capped at 20 per school district, for a total of 120 throughout East Hampton Town. Board members said that 20 apartments are already existing under the 1984 version of the code.

“This is a small law that would allow for 100 apartments for working people of moderate income,” added Ms. Frankl. “I’m proud to have been on the committee that worked so hard on it.”

East Hampton Director of Housing Tom Ruhle said that two people have already coming to his office intending to build an accessory building on their property to live in themselves, while renting their existing houses to their grown children.

Martin Drew of Springs said he thinks the per-school-district caps should be removed. He added that, during the town’s 2004 comprehensive plan process, it was estimated that 1,000 affordable housing units were needed.

“You need to remove the affordable caps if you’re relying on private property owners to do your work for you,” he said.

David Buda of The Springs said he’s a “very strong supporter” of affordable housing, including the town’s other current proposal on the table to expand affordable housing overlay districts. But he doesn’t like this proposal.

“If large-scale rental apartments can be built, that would be a meaningful approach,” he said. “What you’re doing is not meaningful. It’s a drop in the bucket and sends the wrong message entirely.”

He added that, in The Springs (which is really the same place as Springs), many small outbuildings are already being used as affordable rentals, albeit outside of the town’s formal affordable housing program.

“Every single homeowner in East Hampton is allowed to rent two guest bedrooms, provided there are no cooking facilities,” he added. “That kind of housing opportunity exists now. That has been in our code since we became a seasonal community quite a long time ago.”

Zachary Cohen said that he believes the law should keep in mind the private interests of homeowners. He cautioned that affordable rental pricing guidelines set by the town may hinder the construction of new accessory apartments, because homeowners may not be able to recoup their costs if they have to charge affordable rents.

He also suggested that, if the cap stays in place, homeowners with affordable apartments be required to prove they are renting out the affordable apartment or lose their town-sanctioned status.

East Hampton Housing Authority Catherine Casey said the town is aware that this proposal won’t fix the town’s housing shortage.

“The only way we’re going to meet the need is to have a lot of tools in our bag,” she said. “They’re all necessary and all working toward the same goal.”

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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