Two nights ago around midnight, as we went upstairs to get ready for bed, we heard voices. They were not coming from inside the house. They were coming from outside the house.
Our house is on a hillside, overlooking a harbor, and it is surrounded—except toward the water—with shrubs and trees that block out any view of the neighbors, whose houses are some distance away down the road and behind us.
We went out to a deck to listen. It was definitely coming from the woods up the hill behind us, the breeze wafting these voices over to our property. They were happy voices, full of conversation and laughter. It appeared that somebody was having a house full of people over, and they were enjoying a nice late evening. No music was involved.
We looked at each other. It was a warm night. We walked up the hill to investigate. There, in the woods, is a cul-de-sac with three houses on it, and there it was, not in one of these houses but in two of them. All the lights were on in both houses. You could see people sitting in living rooms, standing around kitchen tables. They were middle-aged people for the most part. And we could pick up snatches of what they were saying.
“…found this wonderful beach in Amagansett.”
“…told us about this place called Loaves and Fishes in Sagaponack…”
“…going to a play at Guild Hall…”
Out front of each house there were five or six cars. Not fancy cars, but new ones. Hyundais. Fords. Hondas. Chevrolets.
These were people from the MIDDLE CLASS! We turned and ran back down through the woods to our home, went upstairs and went right to sleep.
The next morning, quite by chance, we read an article about the middle class in The New York Times that explained what we had seen. The middle class has not been in the Hamptons for years. The Hamptons today is a place for only the rich, and the lucky local people who bought homes years ago when prices were low. As for the working class, they are long gone to towns to the west with names like Shirley, Center Moriches and Manorville. They come out here every morning in their panel trucks and pick-ups to attend to the swimming pools, gardens, tennis courts and home repairs of the rich. As for the middle class from the city who used to fondly spend vacations here, they not only can’t afford to buy any home, they can’t even afford the rents. $70,000 for the summer? $30,000 for a month? Forget it.
According to the Times, they are BACK. With a vengeance. They have found a way. It’s called Airbnb.
They are back because of those locals who bought years ago. These people are now renting rooms in their homes by posting photos and descriptions on airbnb.com and similar sites. The rent isn’t much—$75 a night, $175 a night, $300 a night for the whole three-bedroom house while they go away to visit relatives in Albuquerque for a month. And it adds up.
I actually know some who are doing this. One man in Sag Harbor has taken to wearing a captain’s hat everywhere. Recently divorced, he not only rents rooms but also charges to take people out in his cabin cruiser for a day.
This is now a huge business. According to the Times, rentals in the Hamptons through airbnb.com and other such sites are exploding. They are not cutting into the regular high-end rental market. They are expanding the market. And it is very dramatic. And, in certain cases, very illegal.
In East Hampton, in single-family home neighborhoods, a house can only be rented out for two weeks twice a year without a license. With a license, you have to pay hotel taxes. Nobody is paying hotel taxes. In a single-family neighborhood, no more than four individuals not related to one another can live in a home. You are not allowed to have more than four cars parked out front.
But this is now taking place on a massive scale.
Larry Cantwell, the East Hampton town supervisor, told the Times, “We can’t patrol 20,000 houses to see if it’s the same people every week. So we have to get smart about how we pursue these cases.”
If there are 5,000 such cases, how do you do that? The town now has a website where you can file complaints. Cantwell’s hired Dave Betts, the former director of public safety in Southampton, to deal with this issue. “Sometimes it’s as simple as finding one too many reviews in a six-month period,” Betts told the Times. He’s monitoring Airbnb.
But there seems to be no stopping this. It’s everywhere. By 1990, a large illegal immigration of Hispanics occurred in this country, and there’s been no way to legalize it. By 2000, in many parts of the Hamptons, the small homes of the departing middle class were torn down and replaced by giant McMansions for the rich, and we have not stopped them.
And now the middle class is BACK. It’s the Revenge of the Middle Class.
And SHOULD we be trying to stop this?
The conversations we were hearing were not from the rich holding a 200-guest fundraiser under a tent on their property.
The conversations were not from crowds of young people getting drunk, partying all night and blasting music into the community at high volume.
They were not even from “groupers,” large numbers of twentysomethings who take shares in homes here to live amongst others they don’t even know.
The conversations were from a large number of happy, excited, well-mannered middle-class people from the city who hadn’t been here in years.
They want to shop in our stores, eat in our restaurants, go to our beaches, stroll our sidewalks, photograph our windmills and generally have a wonderful time. They bring prosperity, life and excitement. As a result of this, they will probably return offseason life to the center of downtown East Hampton, where in recent years so many storefronts shut in the wintertime that it is almost a graveyard. The existing stores mostly cater only to the rich summer people.
It’s the REVENGE OF THE MIDDLE CLASS.
And what’s the alternative? Teams of police officers raiding homes to see if those they wake up are middle-class people who are not related to one another? Towing cars, in excess of four, away to the pound? Deporting crowds of people in handcuffs back to their apartments on the Upper West Side?
Why not make it a win-win?
Pass a law requiring that all this has to go through real estate brokers. That will make the brokers happy. Require that the homeowners who rent pay a tax on the rentals. That will make the town happy. Pass a law that levies huge fines on noise ordinance violations. Publish guidelines that urge the middle class people to dress and behave well, be friendly to the neighbors and go to sleep early. And pass a law that says owners must be on premises to monitor everything. That will make the renters happy.
As for us, well, the happy voices continue here in the night. I think there is another house with them now. They usually end when we go to bed. After that, we hear the lines of the sailboats clanking against the aluminum masts in the wind across the street. It’s not all that bad.