Fear and Loathing on Long Island: a Real Estate Story

We’d planned to relocate, maybe not right away. And then–-on a bright Tuesday morning that begins like any other—Tower I crashes down just north of my husband’s workplace on lower Broadway.

“You’re going to miss the city like crazy,” a coworker warns, “and they’ll tar and feather you out there.”

Our new home on the east end of Long Island is a 1000-square-foot cedar-shake ranch built on a corner lot where a trailer was once destroyed in a fire. The onset of spring reveals swaths of tulips and tiger lilies, rose bushes just beyond the split rail fence;  forsythia, azalea and rhododendron pushing up against the house, and most magically a brilliant turquoise robin’s egg nested in a pyracantha outside the bedroom window.

Directly across the street, a tiny house painted purple and yellow sits vacant, its interior unaltered for half a century. From a single threadbare room a steep staircase ascends to an attic partitioned into bedrooms too low to stand upright in. The widow who owns it has installed window bars to prevent a certain homeless bicyclist from breaking in to spend the night.

The roof of a hundred-year-old house at the northwest corner of our intersection is beginning to collapse; a trailer sits in the yard. Young men in a pickup truck with a Confederate flag park outside it, radio blaring. A half block to the east, a vacant building once housing Latino workers has a work permit pasted on the door.

“Irish travelers,” clipboard in hand, occasionally drop by. But so does our next-door neighbor–a sprightly widow–selling tickets to church dinners. In the afternoon around three o’clock, blond ponytails bob up from behind the backyard fence as her granddaughters bounce on a trampoline to the sound of “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera.

Our house sits on the boundary line of an incorporated village. Just outside of it working-class homeowners reside in craftsman bungalows. In the village itself–interspersed with multifamily dwellings—Edwardian, Greek revival, and French Empire-style houses in some cases serve as second or third homes for affluent New Yorkers.

 In late springtime, the tourists arrive. When they leave in the autumn “we take back our town!” exclaims my new friend, a “local” who works at the health food store—until she permanently abandons her birthplace for Sarasota, Florida.

About five years after our arrival, a few tree-demolition projects get underway: A small developer guts a corner cottage and turns it into a rental; he snaps up a few other nearby houses and starts methodically tearing down the surrounding trees. Over the next decade, a number of properties on our block are gut renovated, their treed areas transformed into lawns.

A physiatrist and his wife from Nassau County renovate one of the older houses across the street. Occasionally rented out on weekends as a party house, it’s empty most of the time. A half-block to our west, a realtor buys a narrow house where a drug dealer used to live and turns it into his own dumbbell-shaped state-of-the-art 1.5-million-dollar place he rarely uses.

During Covid, construction proceeds apace. The collapsing place cater-corner to us is stripped down to the frame and redone as a 1.6 million dollar Lego-style place with a pool. The old American Square-style house beside it, likewise—transformed into a cheesy boxlike place with little style or charm yet it somehow sells for 1.4 million.

Almost simultaneously, the two sons of the owner of the tiny purple-and-yellow house across the street—one a dentist–get into the game, investing $300K to transform the miniature place into a “hospitality enterprise” for short-term stays, leaving only one or two trees standing on an extensive, once-verdant lot.

Even the plain house of our next-door neighbor, who recently died, is now on the market—but not for long. Then the brothers from across the street, their hospitality project going nowhere, also decide to sell. Everything is instantly snapped up.

Zealously attended to by motorized crews severing any wayward blade in their path, each property assumes the manicured ambience of a golf course.

Conspicuously absent are the new owners, whoever they are.

Porch lights and desk lamps switch on at the usual hour (and familiar lights hover in the darkness near the ceiling—a security system?–a sure indicator no one is home). Landscapers’ trucks arrive unpredictably–and with dismaying frequency unload tractor mowers filling the air with their intrusive and obnoxious screeching.

Sometimes, car doors slam in the night, and you think, Aha, they have arrived. But early in the morning, exterior lights flash on blindingly, and once again–having checked on the progress of unending renovations—car doors slam a second time just before they make their getaway.

A camera lives here. Go meet your new neighbor—the camera will see you now.

As for the remainder of small-town delights–the village five-and-ten, “book scout,” basket shop, hardware and kitchenware stores, and corner breakfast place–one-by-one they close up shop.

The library’s brick-and-mortar premises are still ground zero for the announcement of Zoom events–and steady bifurcation of the classes. Its pared-down public calendar every once in a while introduces an in-person event involving books. A trickle of people wander in every day, stare silently at the computer.

The opening of an exhibit of local artists becomes a catered affair for friends of the artists and “Friends of the Library.”

How do you get to be a “Friend of the Library”?

“How would you like to help? Leadership Team? Committee Chair? Volunteer? Donor? . . . CONTACT US . . . if you would like to join the Board and/or become a volunteer.”

Our newly elected mayor can often be seen riding about the village on his bicycle–long hair flowing—unassuming and disarmingly friendly–previously he served as a vice president of a global real estate firm that is the largest landlord in New York City. Its ongoing Hudson River development project–dramatically reshaping Midtown West—is said to be the largest commercial venture in human history. In 2018, he oversaw the creation of its multistory restaurant complex.

Prior to this, he directed the entire food and beverage operation of one of the nation’s largest luxury casino/resort chains (their buffet is said to be the very best)–and is credited with playing a key role in the culinary evolution of Las Vegas.

His supporters see nothing incongruous in allying with a lifelong veteran of the hospitality industry– who began his career working for Wolfgang Puck—in their fight against hotel and restaurant overdevelopment. “Our village doesn’t need any new restaurants and hotels” became the leitmotif of his campaign. Widely perceived by village “stakeholders” as a talented insider—eminently capable of finding and attracting private lenders, and applying for grants to open the spigot of state and federal funding—it’s hoped he’ll make the best of a chaotic situation—although the billionaire developer he served was a major backer of Donald Trump.

In recent years, four existing village hotels have been acquired by buyers with deep pockets. Now the proposed construction of a new one in the center of the business district, as well as the major expansion of an existing hotel, can only further erode the town’s laid-back maritime character.

The backers of these projects are large hotel companies. One has already provided $100 million in equity commitment to a hotel startup that used the funds to expand across the country–and works with investors to manage small hotels, relying on technology to automate and consolidate back-office operations.

The village trustees, who have placed a six-month moratorium on development, want to finalize a plan to “revitalize the waterfront.” The new mayor, who supports these goals, insists it is first necessary to enact changes in the zoning code.

We’re assured that the community will have a chance to weigh in. A Waterfront Advisory Committee is duly appointed to chair packed public meetings, where the floor is open for to any comments from the attendees. After three such meetings the planning board is to vote on the proposed zoning changes. How can anyone discuss anything except in the broadest generalities? There is a 100-page zoning plan you can read at the library—however because it is a work in progress—nothing is in its final form. Also, no one has read it.

A former mayor adept at deciphering such documents notices that the revised zoning code will introduce burdensome onsite parking requirements for new businesses (one onsite parking space for every five seats in a restaurant, and one parking space for every two employees). Since this would be virtually impossible to fulfill, their only option would be to buy their way out by paying the village off at the rate of $25,000 per space for up to 10 required spaces and $50,000 apiece beyond that.

“Only deep-pocketed investors will be able to afford this extortive demand and our downtown will surely morph into the likes of elite villages elsewhere with name brands using seasonal stores to advertise to their larger customer bases with little interest in meeting the needs of a year-round population,” the former mayor observes in an op-ed piece.

At a subsequent public meeting devoted to parking, one brave soul wonders aloud why parking is so high on the agenda when it’s only a problem for six weeks during the summer. Are we about to grey-top our village with sidewalks and parking lots—which can only exacerbate the extreme climate disruption that we face?

Another public meeting is exclusively devoted to the developers’ presentation of architectural renderings of the new hotels—still at a pre-submission stage in order to solicit feedback from the village planning board prior to their preapproval.

 Of course, there’s always the lack of affordable housing—a problem we are obliged to take up once we get over parking.

With great swaths of the village zoned as single-family, strict limits on multifamily dwellings–and a two-story limit on new structures in the commercial zone–where can the village’s workers be expected to live? They can drive in from Mid-island, but then where do they park? Shuttle them in from the school parking lot outside the village? or require businesses to provide it?

A notice pops up on various web sites that we will have an opportunity to show up and speak at the Firehouse—at a “Housing People Can Afford” Community Work Session.

Lawyers from the Land Use Law Center open the session, but the purpose of the meeting is to let residents of the community express their thoughts and ideas.

Nine bulletin boards are set up in the room, each one attended by a village official dispensing pencils and post-it notes. “What are your needs?” How do you feel about accessory dwelling units? Cottage units? Duplex townhomes? Garden apartments? And so on. At table six, you can scribble your thoughts on adaptive reuse and post it to the bulletin board there. Go to table seven if you have thoughts on mixed-use development. “What are the challenges and opportunities” at table eight. And finally, at nine, “Are there sites you can imagine as housing?” One photo on display—that seems preposterous on its face–as it’s barely a few feet above sea-level—is a long-abandoned five-and-ten on the village’s commercial strip.

“When you’re done, go home.  .  .  . There’s a facilitator at every table.  We’re not starting a debate, just post and go home. Don’t respond to other people’s ideas!”

Not to worry. “Post-notes will be collected and typed up and used.”

According to a recent article in the local paper, our village is “the first municipality on the East End and one of only a few on Long Island so far to seek ‘pro-housing community’ status, to gain priority consideration for up to $650 million in discretionary spending to communities in New York State committed to housing growth.

Governor Kathy Hochul launched the Pro-Housing Community Program by executive order last summer after her “New York Housing Compact”—a sweeping set of proposals to spur the construction of 800,000 new homes statewide by the end of the decade–failed to gain traction.

“Only 15 of the state’s nearly 6000 municipalities have so far submitted applications for the program”–which requires state-certification as a pro-housing community. To satisfy this requirement, the municipality “must file a plan that demonstrates it has increased its housing stock by 1% in the past year or 3% in the past three years.

“Communities without recent housing growth can gain certification by passing a resolution stating their commitment to Pro-Housing principles. . . .

“In November, village officials passed a resolution pledging commitment to the principles.

“The mayor said that efforts to increase the village’s affordable housing stock are already underway, following a sweeping set of zoning code changes that village officials recently approved.. . .

“The state funding that certified pro-housing communities could get priority access to include the Downtown Revitalization Initiative, NY Forward, NY Main Street, Regional Council Capital Fund, Market New York, Long Island Investment Fund, Mid-Hudson Momentum Fund and the Public Transportation Modernization Enhancement Program, according to the governor’s office.”

The ocean may be rising here and the ground just as rapidly sinking. But on our little spit of land stretching out into the Atlantic there is still some money to be made. In an atmosphere that is salty and bracing and as of now attractive to tourists. Directly by the sea. We will have affordable housing on houseboats as the ocean washes over everything.

Kathy Deacon can be reached at stradella3@msn.com.