With just six weeks until May, Scott Bluedorn is stressed. He is drained. He is worried, bitter, anxious.
The 34-year-old artist has exhausted nearly all of his contacts. He has pleaded on social media. He is exploring alternative options.
And, yet, the East End native is hopeful that, come summer, he and his fiancée, 24-year-old Rowan Hausman, will not be homeless.
For many year-round residents, the affordable housing plight is a familiar one — punctuated by seasonal rental hopping every spring leading into summer and, once the second-home owners leave, moving back into winter rentals.
As the expiration date rapidly approaches on Mr. Bluedorn’s current living arrangement — an East Hampton estate owned by a collector who, as a favor, offered it to them for the winter at well below market value — he is desperately searching for a two-bedroom apartment in what he calls “the realm of reasonable,” or less than $3,500 per month.
And it simply doesn’t exist.
“That’s the reality and it’s, like, we’re at Upper East Side prices — apartments in Sag Harbor are going for that,” he said. “I think a lot of these people who are in my situation have just been finally totally squeezed to the limit. Now we’re looking at either having to leave the area or camp. There’s just no vacancy. It’s, like, ‘The Hamptons: No Vacancy at All.’”
While the affordable housing crisis is far from novel for the East End, its recent severity certainly is — a decades-long crisis only exacerbated and accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic that has left many lifelong locals like Mr. Bluedorn unable to find housing.
“It’s only gotten so much worse with the pandemic,” East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said. “There’s been an increase in property values because of the increased demand to escape urban areas to be out here. So that’s made an already difficult problem many times more difficult. There are people whose families who have lived here for literally hundreds of years being priced out.”
A Crisis That Won’t End
Growing up, Mr. Bluedorn’s family never owned a house. His parents were perennial renters, moving every few years all around East Hampton due to rising rents — and, for the most part, it worked just fine for them, he said.
“We always had the option to find new housing if we wanted to,” he recalled. “It was never an emergency.”
It was in the early 2000s when Mr. Bluedorn first noticed the dearth of affordable housing — largely due to the exodus from New York following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 — and, as a young man, he started to think critically.
He questioned the sustainability of the East End and why only certain areas were considered affordable. He pointed to the disparity between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” He saw the writing on the wall — a storyline that has not only continued but exploded.
“Now, I think it’s harder than it’s ever been,” he said. “It seems like, now, you’re just out of options. Forget affordable options — there’s just no options in general, because of the fact that so many people have moved out here full time, and there’s just no inventory. The town, I don’t think, has done nearly enough. They should have started to address the problem decades ago.”
The affordable housing issue eclipses East Hampton Town, stretching to the farthest points west on the South Fork and everywhere in between.
During a monthly enrollment snapshot of the Southampton School District, Superintendent of Schools Nicholas Dyno pointed to a steady decline since 2016 — accurately predicted by a study completed three years ago, he said.
“The majority of our students who left this year left because they were renters and they couldn’t afford their homes any longer,” he said. “So that’s about 60-some of our students who left.”
In the East Hampton School District, Mr. Van Scoyoc estimates that only 10 percent of the teachers and staff live within the town — which was the opposite 30 years ago, when he and his wife, who worked as a teacher there, finally bought land and built their house.
“Before I was able to, my wife and I lived in seven houses in two and a half years — so this is not a new phenomenon,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s even possible for anybody who actually lives off the local economy to have an expectation that they could afford to live here, or even rent now, much less buy a home.”
Resort communities across the country mirror the East End’s affordable housing struggle, including the tiny island of Nantucket off the coast of Massachusetts, according to Margaretta Andrews, executive director of Community Foundation for Nantucket. In the four decades that she has watched her home evolve, she has never seen such exponential change as was brought on by the pandemic.
“COVID has affected everything on Nantucket, including affordable housing,” she said. “Apartments and houses that were almost out of reach financially are now completely out of reach, as a huge percentage of our workforce was not able to work for a large part of last year, and certainly did not make enough to save up for the lean winter months.”
Two thousand miles away, in Aspen, Colorado, an influx of tourists and residents has driven up the prices of already high-end properties, but not those that would be accessible to local working people, according to Chris Bendon, who worked in the City of Aspen planning office for 19 years, 11 as its director, before leaving to start a private land-use consulting firm, BendonAdams.
“Success can bring about challenges,” he said. “Addressing those challenges is always a set of trade-offs and a sense of competing interests — in extreme cases, a sense of futility. But, you should keep in mind that the challenges are because you have a great place, a place people want to be. There are worse problems.”
No Easy Answers
Between the region’s seasonality, desirability as a resort community and, in turn, high cost of living, the East End positioned itself for an affordable housing crisis decades ago, said Mr. Van Scoyoc, who said he is slowly working to correct it.
So far, his tenure has overseen the 12-unit “manor house” project on Accabonac Road in East Hampton, the first of its kind in the town’s affordable housing program — offering one-bedroom units for $126,835 to three-bedroom condos for $267,850.
Also in the development pipeline are 16 acres off Three Mile Harbor Road in East Hampton, which could house up to 60 units, and the 37-unit Gansett Meadow complex in Amagansett, as well as two parcels in East Hampton and Wainscott that the town acquired in 2018 for housing purposes.
“These are still drops in the bucket, in terms of what we need,” Mr. Van Scoyoc acknowledged.
The affordable housing projects in the works are “bittersweet,” Mr. Bluedorn said, knowing that they’re years away from completion. “And it’s just too late,” he said. “I feel like, all the time, whatever I do, it’s just too late.”
Inspired by his own struggles, Mr. Bluedorn joined the Community Housing Opportunity Fund Advisory Committee about a month ago, which makes recommendations to the East Hampton Town Board regarding affordable housing opportunities — an issue he can speak to on a personal level, and on behalf of his demographic across the East End.
“It’s such a common story for anyone my age. I think most younger people have a really hard time staying in the area for so many reasons, but this is definitely the No. 1 reason,” he said.
“It’s really got me thinking about it in an activist sense, where I don’t think enough people are really talking about this. I think a lot of people have given up fighting for it, or raising attention, because they take it as a given in this area and in this housing market.
“And to me, that’s really sad,” he continued, “because if people don’t raise their voices, they’re not gonna get what they need.”
To date, the advisory committee has drafted nearly a dozen potential remedies to the crisis, including an adjustment to zoning laws that would permit off-grid tiny homes in special overlay districts where more density is allowed, and further incentivizing accessory dwelling units with priority for long-term residents and seasonal workers.
More controversially, they have also proposed increasing taxes on second homes — hiking them up even higher for third homes — as well as eliminating short-term seasonal rentals altogether.
“I’ve found within the last two, three years, through a number of unfortunate circumstances, I keep coming back to the fact that it really is all about the money,” Mr. Bluedorn said. “One thing is responsible more than any other thing: the fact that summer renting has just gotten to this obscene level where people can name their price. They don’t need to rent to anyone year-round when you can make a year’s rent in two, three weeks.”
The committee has also called for a housing trust that would provide assistance to local, first-time homebuyers — a version of which is currently in discussion, according to Mr. Van Scoyoc. Mr. Thiele has proposed legislation to create a separate half-percent transfer tax to fund affordable housing initiatives. While it was approved by the .egislature, it was vetoed by the governor in 2019. Mr. Thiele plans to reintroduce the bill and is confident this time around it will be approved.
“Funding is an issue,” the supervisor said. “When you develop a property, you still have to be able to buy it and pay for the development of it. Those costs may be somewhat lower — there are subsidies involved and grants you can get — but trying to cobble together all those different funding sources is an obstacle. Having a fund that we could go to, to leverage toward those grants, would be helpful.”
Ms. Andrews is the first to point out that Nantucket will never grant its way around the island’s housing crisis — and if there were one big solution, the Community Foundation would have thought of it by now, and executed it.
“The need for affordable housing is staggering on Nantucket, translating into literally hundreds of millions of dollars if we were to build appropriate housing for all our residents,” she said. “We do not have those resources — few do — so the small grants that we are able to provide will not solve our crisis.
“Rather, we prefer to fund studies and strategies that might lead to solutions more globally on the island — likely won’t create immediate change but may start to turn the dial,” she continued. “I would encourage your town supervisor to look into grants that focus on planning and strategy for now — itt reduces the risk of getting grants for something you’re not ready for, or don’t ultimately need.”
In the short term, the foundation has provided grants throughout the pandemic for rent assistance — she estimates well over $100,000 to date through the Nantucket Fund for Emergency Relief.
“If we don’t help with rents now, most of these folks will never catch up,” she said. “At the same time, Nantucket had the most successful real estate year ever — $1.3 billion in sales in 2020. Prices are at an all-time high, and there is extremely limited inventory. All that further exacerbates the housing crises.”
In Massachusetts, Chapter 40B requires a municipality to hit a 10 percent affordable housing benchmark, one that eight out of every 10 towns fail to meet, even 50 years since the law passed — and almost half of them fall at less than 5 percent.
With 199 homes on the Subsidized Housing Inventory, Nantucket is hovering right around 4 percent, according to Anne Kuszpa, executive director of Housing Nantucket. It would need 490 to be 40B compliant, she said.
“Many seasonal homeowners have decided to use the house themselves as they escape from the city and work remotely,” Ms. Kuszpa explained. “Tenants who were formerly in these units were forced to move. There were no available rental units for these tenants to move. Often, they were forced into overcrowding situations, which compounded the effects of the virus.”
The pandemic is even testing places like Aspen, which has had a robust affordable housing program in place since the 1970s, when officials recognized what could have been an insurmountable issue.
Supported by two tax sources and restricted by firm requirements, the program serves all levels of the community — from busboys and landscapers to doctors and lawyers — with most properties ranging between $50,000 and $1.2 million, a fraction of what they would normally cost, Mr. Bendon said.
Currently, more than half of Aspen’s 8,000 year-round population participates in the program, he said. But as with any social policy, Aspen’s solution to its housing crisis does not come without its share of disputes — or a magical set of regulations.
On the surface, it may look like an “overwhelming success,” Mr. Bendon said, but up close, the lottery system is fiercely competitive and can leave applicants waiting years, some decades, while others get it on their first try.
“Aspen is a great destination, but, also, a great place to live,” he said. “There’s a community here that is sustained through affordable housing. It would be a much different place without the local community.”
The void that would be created by the East End pricing out its year-round population is unthinkable, Mr. Bluedorn said, likening the community left behind to “a large summer camp for the rich.”
But as the days become longer, Mr. Bluedorn fears he could be part of the dispersed, as his housing options grow slimmer and he, more seriously, considers leaving the place he has called home for his entire life.
“It is insane and I never thought it was gonna come to this,” he said. “It feels like, constantly, either my life is on hold or it’s like a reoccurring interruption. Moving itself is beyond a hassle, it’s expensive, it’s time and money — and rearranging your entire life for the most basic of needs.”
He breathed out a deep sigh.
“It’s really discouraging. I feel resentment a lot, I feel a lot of stress, I can’t plan for anything,” he continued. “I can’t commit to anything in the summer because I can’t tell you if I’ll be here or not.”
In the meantime, the grassroots efforts continue for Mr. Bluedorn — through writing letters, demanding change in town meetings and simply talking to those around him, making his story known.
“It takes a whole community. Everyone doesn’t want to take personal responsibility, and I keep hearing this over and over: ‘It’s a shame, it’s a shame, it’s a shame,’” he said. “But if the whole community doesn’t support measures to make it more affordable, more livable in all these ways, it’s not gonna happen.
“It can’t be up to one generous person to say, ‘Oh, I’m gonna rent my apartment below market value,’” he continued. “It can’t be a handful of people. It has to be a community-wide initiative. Everyone has to support it, or they might find themselves in the same situation.”
Winner of Best Feature Story, first place, New York Press Association 2021:
Judge’s comments: “The writer tackles a subject that many are facing after the pandemic: limited housing. Her reporting on one couple’s plight is as real as it gets. Excellent report!”