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May 3, 2016 10:54 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Montauk Housing Shortage Rekindles Talk Of Dormitories

Many stay at local hotels as it is becoming difficult for workers to find housing in Montauk. KYRIL BROMLEY
May 5, 2016 9:56 AM

Housing seasonal staff has been an annual chore for Montauk business owners for decades. But on the heels of one of the area’s biggest housing resources being snatched up by a new business for the exclusive use of its own coming employees, the struggle to house summertime staff may be approaching critical mass.

Billionaire business owner Marc Rowan’s purchase this past winter of the Neptune Motel, which some say housed "hundreds" of transient workers in summer, has stirred conversations about a broad housing shortage and renewed discussion of the town allowing, or perhaps spearheading, the construction of dormitory style apartment developments in Montauk’s dock area.

By some estimates, as many as 500 to 600 traditionally seasonal staff housing units—in the form of apartments, rental cottages and motel rooms used as dormitories—have been taken off the low-priced market in Montauk in the last several years.

Many, like the hotel rooms at the Surf Lodge and Ruschmeyers and the efficiency-style cottages at Rick’s Crabby Cowboy and Duffy’s Cottages, have been upgraded and converted to more profitable transient housing for Montauk’s swelling stock of summer vacationers.

Additionally, small houses that had been rented to groups of summer workers for decades because their vacation-rental value was not worth the effort to find summer tenants through brokers, have been sucked into the vacation market by websites like AirBnB that offer easy outreach and booking. And short-term tenants are now willing to pay a high price for a small bungalow.

But the scramble by businesses to ensure they meet staffing needs has also eaten away at the housing supply, often in big bites. Several of Montauk’s large employers have bought up longtime housing complexes, mostly former hotels, for the exclusive use of their employees. Most notable among such acquisitions is Gurney’s Inn, whose owners purchased Tiny Underwoods on Westlake Drive and the Lido Motel near downtown to house some of the company’s 300-plus summer staff. There was also Mr. Rowan’s snatching of the Neptune to house the staff at his two newly acquired businesses, Duryea’s Lobster Deck and the restaurant-club that was most recently called Ciao!

“Neptune—there were probably hundreds of people living there,” said one Montauk business owner at a recent meeting of the Montauk Citizens Advisory Committee of the 12-unit former motel. “They are basically homeless now. In another four, five years we will not be able to get anybody to come work here.”

While other East End hamlets have seen the convulsively seasonal nature of their summer swell muted somewhat by increases in off-season visitation, Montauk’s high season has remained mostly Memorial Day to Labor Day. Because of its many hotels and resorts, its giant labor needs are also largely met by transient, immigrant labor, who often need housing only for three months and rarely for more than five or six.

To some, this has made the idea of dormitory housing such an obvious potential solution for Montauk.

Paul Monte, senior advisor of Gurney’s Inn and president of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged that creating dormitory housing in the dock area has been discussed for years and said that seasonal housing will be a topic of a subcommittee for the upcoming hamlet study meetings later this month and next month. But, he said, the town also needs find ways to create pockets of housing spread broadly across the hamlet. A sewer system, which is being planned, would allow for some hotels and businesses to construct staff housing on their properties—an idea advanced by town planning staff—and would allow for more apartments above downtown stores to house employees.

“It’s a situation that is not getting better on its own. It’s going to fester,” Mr. Monte said. “There’s a lot of conversation going on about dormitories and other solutions. It’s just a question of what people are going to be able to accept, and do.”

Indeed, discussing the sensibility of building dormitory-style housing and winning acceptance of it are very different things. In a 2005 update of the Comprehensive Plan, the town created a “seasonal housing overlay district,” a zoning designation that would allow certain regions to create dormitory housing for seasonal workers, either through new construction or by conversion of existing facilities.

The next year, during the comp plan implementation discussions, Tom Ruhle, the town’s Housing Department director, suggested converting defunct or run-down motels into dormitory-style staff housing available to all businesses.

“To say that it was not well received would be an understatement,” Mr. Rhule said. “Ironically enough, it’s exactly what is happening now, except it’s happening only for highly capitalized businesses. We suggested the Lido Motel, specifically, and we got hit over the head for it. Now Gurney’s bought the Lido for its staff. We suggested Tiny Underwoods, and Gurneys bought that too.”

Town Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc echoed the frustrations of public officials in addressing concerns brought to them by some, when actual action is proposed.

“We are open to looking at any of these solutions, but when you propose a given location, that’s when the fireworks start,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said on Monday, nodding to the common NIMBYism blowback against high-density housing projects by would-be neighbors. “We see the pushback we get when we propose almost any kind of housing … no matter how perfect the location is.”

Mr. Van Scoyoc said he hoped the hamlet study discussions might find a way to win support on the housing issue.

The dock area of Montauk, specifically some blocks of land just west of the harbor docks, have been identified as the most immediately suitable location for new dormitory construction, if it were to happen, because of the already high-density of development in the area. Whether such development should be something handled on a private basis by a consortium of businesses who would use it, or something led by the town for the sake of better control, is a matter of some debate, Mr. Ruhle said, adding that it should be a private venture, not a public one.

Montauk Chamber of Commerce executive director Laraine Creegan said she has pushed for legislation that would allow more businesses to join together in purchasing single-family homes to be used as staff housing. The worker housing issue needs to be addressed from a variety of angles, she said, and quickly.

“It’s a crisis,” she said. “We’re losing more people’s houses every year. You can’t employ people in Montauk and expect them to travel from Riverhead every day.”

As the hamlet study community meetings approach, the Montauk Chamber is polling its members to get a more accurate idea of just how many seasonal workers are in need of housing annually, as a guide to how much housing needs to be created.

The question of why, exactly, people couldn’t be housed in more affordable regions and commute to Montauk for work stirred at Monday’s meeting of the advisory committee. Business-run shuttles, or better public transportation could ease the stress, without the risky venture of creating high-density housing in the already over-crowded hamlet, one speaker suggested.

“Why do the people who work here have to live here,” asked CAC member Ray Cortell. “People go to work in Manhattan every day and don’t live there.”

Many nodded their heads at the point, but others shook their heads when Mr. Van Scoyoc reminded the group that plans for better public transportation on the East End have been discussed for decades and are still sitting on a shelf in a Suffolk County planning office.

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The local Town boards need to wake up and see that this type of housing shortage is going to be the downfall of the East End of Long Island as a whole.

Not only are the youth leaving LI in droves (especially the East End) due to the lack of housing, but you cannot entice workers to fill jobs out here without affordable housing and an alternative to sitting in daily 2 hour morning traffic. The bubble is set to burst. Town Boards open your eyes and provide some PDD's or developments of truly ...more
By Mouthampton (439), Southampton on May 5, 16 1:01 PM