Springs-Fireplace apartments a learning experience for town

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It might be an understatement to suggest that the new town-owned apartment complex on Springs Fireplace Road in East Hampton, which was designed as the first middle-income public housing project in the municipality, has been put under a heavy lens over the past year.

Town officials said they sought to fill a void in the real estate market with the project by offering 26 spacious one- and two-bedroom apartments for $1,350 and $1,650 a month, respectively. But officials were surprised—and heavily scrutinized—when far fewer qualified applicants than expected showed an interest in living in the units.

But at the beginning of the month, the apartments quietly started filling up with residents and after the controversy and criticism, deadline extensions and delays, the satisfaction of finally moving is evident for some of the new tenants.

“I love them,” said Alyson Rogoski, 27, an administrative assistant at a local school who is living in two-bedroom unit with her husband, Ken. “They have all the amenities, and they are so comfortable.”

Town officials have explained that the 13 one-bedroom and 13 two-bedroom units, which are spread out over six buildings on 6 acres, were designed for professionals, teachers, police officers and other local workers who earn moderate salaries, but who aren’t ready for home ownership.

The one-bedroom units, which range from 745 to 797 square feet in size, are renting for $1,350 a month. The two-bedroom units, which span 897 to 1160 square feet, are being rented for $1,650 a month. The rent includes heat and water, but not electricity.

The houses were built by the town for $4.25 million and are being bought for that price by the East Hampton Housing Authority, a non-profit group that will serve as the landlord. The town spent an additional $1.5 million to acquire the land and install the infrastructure, according to Tom Ruhle, the director of the town’s Office of Housing and Community Development.

Town officials originally set a deadline of June 30, 2006, for applying for the apartments, but were forced to extend that multiple times due to a lack of qualified applicants. Today, one of the apartments still sits vacant, and Mr. Ruhle said he is still encouraging people to apply for it.

Although the apartments were originally expected to be ready on February 1, delays in acquiring a certificate of occupancy and the necessary permits caused the move-in date to be pushed back to April 1.

For Karen Green, the delay was a major problem.

Ms. Green, a 47-year-old single mother living in a one-bedroom apartment with one of her two sons, Steven Schiavoni, an eighth-grader at East Hampton Middle School, was forced to live with friends for two weeks at the end of March after the move-in date was pushed back for what she said was a third time. She noted that she was told that she could move in by March 15 and committed to moving out of her house in Sag Harbor on that day, leaving her in a bind when the apartments were still not ready.

“It was really, really stressful,” Ms. Green said, arguing that if the town was trying to help working people, it didn’t do so by causing her to be without a home for two weeks.

Previously, Ms. Green was living with her two sons at a three-bedroom house that she paid $1,700 a month for, excluding utilities. She said she moved to the Springs Fireplace apartments in order to save money.

Her older son, Josiah Schiavoni, a junior at East Hampton High School, cannot live with her because of the limit of two occupants per bedroom. He is now living with a friend.

“That part is bothering me,” she said, “because I feel like I’m limited in seeing my children.”

Mr. Ruhle would not comment on Ms. Green’s situation specifically, but said the town could not make exceptions to its rule of allowing only two occupants per bedroom. “The problem with exceptions is that everyone has a compelling case as to why there should be an exception,” Mr. Ruhle said. “It’s a pretty hard and fast rule.”

Town Councilman Pete Hammerle, who headed up the project for the Town Board, said “you can’t take a whole bunch of people and let them all sleep in one room. It just doesn’t work.”

For Amy Joudeh and Dan Gruenthal, who live in a two-bedroom unit with Ms. Joudeh’s 14-year-old son, Ryan, the apartments are a comfortable and affordable alternative to other rental options in town. Before moving into the complex, the family was living in a “tiny” three-bedroom house on King Street in East Hampton Village, where they paid $1,800 a month without utilities. They expected to see their rent rise to $2,000 a month.

“We were at our limit, and it was just too expensive,” said Ms. Joudeh, 45, adding that the family is on a “tight budget.”

Ms. Joudeh, a café manager at Provisions in Sag Harbor, and Mr. Gruenthal, a 50-year-old letter carrier for the East Hampton Post Office, agreed that having the apartments in town made it much more affordable for middle-income people to stay in the area.

But another resident, who asked not to be identified, had less kind words to describe the project. He said he’s experienced multiple problems with his apartment since moving in and that he’s having a difficult time getting them all fixed. The tenant said his kitchen floor is damaged, his washing machine started leaking water onto the floor before it was used, and the key he was given to unlock the storage area for the apartment did not work.

Despite the appeal that the apartments might hold for some, there is little denying that the town didn’t hit its target demographic as easily as expected. Although 26 applicants verbally committed to living in the apartments earlier this year, three tenants dropped out before signing leases.

Of the 77 applicants for the apartments, 31 were rejected by the town housing department, largely because of low income or credit scores, Mr. Ruhle said. The remaining applications were forwarded to the Housing Authority, which makes the final determination on accepting tenants.

Mr. Ruhle said last week that the 37 adults that the housing department had information for—a group that includes six employees of public and private schools, six town employees, four retail workers, eight office professionals, six licensed professionals, and seven people who work in the service or labor industry—were the target group that town officials had imagined living in the units when they planned the project.

“I think its exactly what we were looking for—middle-income people with solid employment in the community,” Mr. Ruhle said.

There are currently 49 people living in the apartments, a group that includes 38 adults and 11 children, according to Maureen Murphy, the executive director of the East Hampton Housing Authority. Combined incomes range from $45,000 to $91,940 for the one-bedroom occupants and from $65,900 to $114,000 for the two-bedroom tenants.

In constructing housing for middle-income residents, Mr. Ruhle argued, the town was moving into uncharted territory and argued that the town’s inexperience with this demographic made it a little more difficult to attract residents.

“A lot of our programs deal with low-income people,” Mr. Ruhle said. “They have so few choices that you offer them anything, and they will take it immediately.

“These people had more options,” Mr. Ruhle continued, noting that middle-income people in town could have been less attracted to the apartments because they didn’t get a chance to see them finished before they applied. “You may need to have a slightly different marketing strategy,” to appeal to this demographic, he said.

Mr. Hammerle added that as people get accustomed to the apartments and show them to friends and family, they should receive more attention in the community.

“I would expect that there will be a waiting list,” he said.

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