Displaced on the North Fork: Housing crisis leaves longtime residents scrambling for a place to live

Living in one place all your life isn’t always a guarantee that you can remain there. It’s a problem that’s not unique to the North Fork but is perhaps one of its most pervasive issues — locals simply can’t afford to stay. 

Take Penelope, for instance. She has lived in Greenport her entire life. Her family, her “backbone,” lives on the North Fork. Her children attend Greenport High School and the village is where she’s built a career at a job she loves, working in health care for the past 15 years. But her landlord told her in May she had three months to find somewhere else to live. And Penelope is still looking.

“There’s like nothing around here. And everything that I do find, they want at least $3,500 to $4,500 a month, with nothing included,” said Penelope, who asked Times Review to use a pseudonym to protect her privacy. 

She’s still living in her old apartment, although her landlord periodically checks in to see if she’s found anything. 

“So after you pay their rent, then you have to take care of all the bills and whatever expenses that you have,” she said. It’s not like I’m even looking for a mansion. I’m just looking for something to accommodate. I’m not picky at all.”

It’s no secret that the North Fork has a housing crisis. But besides a shortage of housing stock, locals have been facing increased pressure from landlords who want to sell their properties or raise rents, forcing many to leave. 

The North Fork Housing Alliance said the number of displaced people coming to the organization has increased seven percent over the last year, and the number who need financial assistance has grown 10%.

“We’re seeing a lot of people that landlords sold the houses, or they’re not renewing leases, or they’re raising the rent, and we see people more often, especially folks that have been part of a community for a long time and don’t want to leave the community, oftentimes they’re living in their cars or they’re trying to scrape by living in motel rooms or they’re couch surfing. And we’re seeing that number increase as well,” said Daniel O’Shea, executive director of Maureen’s Haven in Riverhead.

In 2021, the organization offered 6,400 beds through its emergency winter shelter program across the East End.

“I think a lot of people don’t fully realize the extent of homelessness on the East End,” he added. “There’s a lot of misconceptions and misperceptions about what homeless people look like and who they are … The reality of it all is a lot of folks are our neighbors, they are people that have been in the community for a long time.”

Maria Fedele, director at North Fork Parish Outreach, which operates a thrift store and food pantry serving residents from Laurel to Orient, said that like many other aid organizations on the North Fork, the parish has been facing a demand for its services that’s only continued to increase since the outbreak of the pandemic. 

“I definitely think the economy is playing a big role in this,” she said. “And also, I hear people saying, you know, with housing, they’re having such a hard time because rents are going up and people can’t afford it. Even people who are trying to look for other places because perhaps their residence now has been sold, so they can’t live there anymore, they can’t rent, and then they look to rent somewhere else and the rent is so high … We actually have an elderly individual who should already be out of her residence, because it is being sold, and I don’t know where she’s going to go. She said, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to have to live in my car.’ It’s a very tough situation out here”

While there’s no easy solution to the problem, education should definitely play a role, said Tanya Palmore, executive director of North Fork Housing Alliance.

“We try to encourage tenants to pay their landlord [and] keep the lines of communication open. Let’s say your rent is $100 and you have $50. Show a good face to your landlord and send the $50 with a letter explaining,” she said.

She added that the Housing Alliance tries to encourage landlords to stick with year-round rentals and help the community, but “some landlords tell us their personal situation has changed, you know, they’re going to move or they’re going to retire. It’s a combination of factors. And the way the prices are going through the roof doesn’t help.”

Real estate agent and housing advocate Michael Daly, founder of East End YIMBY, which stands for “yes in my backyard,” called the East End’s housing problems a “pandemic within a pandemic.” 

“It is a byproduct of this kind of crazy housing cycle that we’ve been in, where there were a number of people who displaced renters during the pandemic because they wanted to use their own houses and they had them as rentals, and they forced their tenants out because they wanted to use them,” he said. “It’s happening all the time where people who owned rental houses evicted people who were paying nominal year-round rents because there was such a great demand during the pandemic for luxury rentals so people coming from New York or the more populated areas ended up displacing local people.”

Many house sales from the past year were former rentals, he noted, and the people living there were displaced. “It’s been really pronounced over the last two years,” he said, adding that the “AirBnB explosion” has also played a significant role in the housing crisis. Of the 1.2 million AirBnB listings in the U.S., 62% have been added since 2020.

“People are kind of turning their houses into cash machines,” Mr. Daly said. “It’s not easy to fault somebody for doing that. If I owned a second home, it’s tempting. But when you displace a teacher, a fireman, an EMT, you create a situation where we’re damaging our infrastructure because we want to make more money. Who are you really hurting?”

And now, there’s a number of homes purchased by people who thought they’d live on the East End permanently but returned to work or their primary homes, and those houses are now sitting empty, he said. 

“You know, this happened also after 9/11. Not everybody may remember that but there was a very large flight to safety out here after 9/11 where people came,” Mr. Daly said. “Some people came and never left. But most people that came and said that they were moving here and that was it, they were done with the city, a lot of them went back. And we’re finding the same thing now. It’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out in the market.”

He hears stories like Penelope’s at least once a week. He knows locals hunting for anything they can rent under $3,000 a month. Some have moved three times a year the last few years, he said. 

Patrick Alfred, a former brewer at Greenport Harbor Brewing Company, plans to move to the Catskills after being displaced twice since the outbreak of the pandemic. Costs aren’t the only reason; he also started his own brewery and he was struggling to balance both jobs. But finding an affordable space to live has been difficult since he moved to the North Fork in 2016.

He lived in an apartment in Southold until he found a house to rent in Peconic, where he lived for about four years. And then, after the pandemic, his landlord raised the rent, so Mr. Alfred moved to an apartment in Greenport. Three months ago, he received notice that his landlord had sold the building and he needed to “get out of there.” He had already been planning to move, but his roommate struggled to find a space to live in for at least a month, he said. 

People in the hospitality industry, which is predominant on the North Fork, need a place to live, he said. “I often found that they were not living in ideal situations. They were living in somebody’s garage or something like that, that was redone, or just like a really small apartment. It’s like, what about the people who live out there and work out there? They have no well-being. A lot of them don’t.”

Rich Vandenburgh, Mr. Alfred’s former employer, said at least one other employee recently left the company with plans to move upstate, because he couldn’t afford to continue living on Long Island.

“[There’s] no real alternative for reasonable workforce housing within the area that allows somebody new to build a future,” he said. “We try to foster opportunities where our employees are going to be able to live reasonably close to where they work out here in the North Fork. And it’s really, really difficult.”

Mr. Vandenburgh, who is also the president of the Greenport Business Improvement District, said he’s heard similar stories from other business owners. Larger businesses have resorted to buying single-family homes to house employees, he noted. 

“That becomes the alternative to their ability to allow these people to kind of grow their own lives independently of the business. It’s like company housing,” he said. “If you’re wealthy enough, or you have enough corporate funding to follow that, you get by. You manage, as difficult as it is. But a lot of the small businesses, like a lot of the tradespeople or a lot of our first responders, a lot of these people are living in their parents’ homes, or living places where they’re not able to really get their own lives started, because they just don’t have the ability to live anywhere.”

Is this crisis a form of gentrification? Mr. Daly, when asked that question, paused for a moment. “Let’s look it up,” he said. 

The first result on Google reads: “The process whereby the character of a poor urban area is changed by wealthier people moving in, improving housing, and attracting new businesses, typically displacing current inhabitants in the process.”

“So it does fit in some ways,” Mr. Daly noted. Then he scrolled to Wikipedia, which defines gentrification as “the process of changing the character of a neighborhood through the influx of more affluent residents and businesses.”

“So yeah, I think you could use that. We’re not a poor urban area but definitely, we’re changing the character of a neighborhood through the influx of more affluent residents and businesses,” he said. 

“You know, the ironic thing is that people talk about affordable housing changing the character of a neighborhood but it’s these McMansions that are going up,” he added. “I mean, certainly, you know, some of them are beautiful and nice to see. But when it displaces people, that becomes gentrification. And we’re certainly experiencing that on the East End.”