The apartment is affordable, but the neighborhood is definitely not
“There’s nothing like living next to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world,” said Liza Coppola. One in particular, Coopers Beach, is often featured on lists of the top 10 beaches in the country. “The only problem is that I’m not allowed to go there.”
Coopers Beach, she explained, is a beach in the village of Southampton, not to be confused with a beach in the larger town of Southampton. If you want a parking permit for the village beaches, you must live in the village. Ms. Coppola does not. She lives in an area of Southampton called Tuckahoe. “I had to learn that the hard way,” she said, “with a parking ticket.”
She could pay the $250 annual fee for non-permit holders, but it’s too expensive, so she finds other ways to access the desired seascape. “I can park near the town beach and walk along the sand to Coopers – it’s only a few miles.”
Like Coopers Beach, there are very few things in the village of Southampton that feel easily accessible to Ms Coppola. “It’s not for me,” she said. “I have to leave here to do my shopping, even the supermarkets are too expensive.” The journey takes at least half an hour, but the savings are worth it.
She works as a housing assistant on the nearby Shinnecock Reservation, helping United States Housing and Urban Development Direct Funding, or HUD, to rehabilitate homes. “Some of these houses are so deteriorated,” she said, “that you wouldn’t want to live there.”
She says most people she knows in the Shinnecock community face a similar dynamic of being priced out of where they live. “They go to the Stop & Shop in Hampton Bays because it’s cheaper than the one in Southampton – by a third, easily.”
Farm stand prices are also out of reach for her. “If I want to go to one, that’s crazy,” she said. “And I don’t have it.” I’ve been coming to the farm here for 30 years – I don’t pay $15 for a liter of strawberries. Do not do it.
At 63, Ms Coppola is a rare breed in Southampton: a full-time tenant. “I have a Ph.D. in the school of hard knocks,” she said. “I’ve never been rich, but I’ve always found my calling.”
Ms Coppola owned a home in the North Fork for 22 years, but when the housing crisis hit she found herself upside down in her mortgage. She managed to hang on for a while, but finally had to give it up in 2019 in a short sale.
She rented accommodation in Mattituck on the North Fork for a few months before moving into her current apartment in November 2019.
“So that’s the story of how I became a tenant,” she said.
She loved living in Mattituck and wasn’t looking to leave, but when her landlord told her he needed the garage back so he could use it for his extended family, she had to look for options.
$1,094 | Southampton
Liza Coppola, 63 years old
Occupation: Housing assistant and musician
On the summer mood: Ms Coppola said Covid has colored the way summer visitors spend their time in the Hamptons. “When people go out,” she said, “they rent a nice house, keep 50 people there, and they don’t go out that much.”
On his songbook: Ms Coppola has been playing music for 15 years, playing mainly acoustic rock covers – lots of ballads and songs with a folk soul. “I’m a troubadour girl,” she says. “I like to remind people of the songs they like.”
Because she has spent years working on housing issues – first in a nonprofit in Greenport and now with the Shinnecock community – Ms. Coppola knew she would qualify for HUD development projects aimed at people earning less than the area median income of $100,722.
There were a few such buildings in the nearby town of Riverhead, but the waiting lists were long. She also looked at the open market, but didn’t see many listings. “There are very few apartments available – and that’s a problem.”
An agent told me that many Hamptons landlords are quite reluctant to rent their apartments and homes to full-time renters like Ms. Coppola because they can make more money by renting at full price during the months of summer.
Always looking for more options, Ms. Coppola searched within a 40-mile radius. That’s when she unexpectedly found an opportunity in Southampton: Construction of Sandy Hollow Cove Apartments, a HUD development, was complete and management was accepting applications from households with 80% or less of the area’s median income. .
Ms Coppola applied and three weeks later was notified that one of the 28 new apartments was hers. “Which never happens,” she says. “These places have had waiting lists for years – I’ve seen it through my work.”
She assumes the development wasn’t overwhelmed with applications as there was very little trumpeting of the project – as far as she can tell. “You know how Southampton can be,” she said, “God forbid you have affordable accommodation. So it was almost like this big secret. No one really knew.”
But she did — thanks to a mention on 27east.com, an online aggregator of local newspapers. “This place is just perfect for me.”
Her studio alcove is filled with plants. “It’s apartment living,” she said. “You can’t have a garden, so you have to bring the garden inside.”
She shares the apartment with Layla, her 11-year-old Pekingese, who, unfortunately, does not share Mrs Coppola’s affinity for the beach: “As soon as she has sand between her toes, she wants to leave.
Most of Ms Coppola’s neighbors, like her, are working-class – a librarian, a paralegal. “The parking lot is emptied at 9:30 because everyone is at work.”
It wasn’t so easy to make friends in Southampton. She has a few family members a short drive away and lots of people in Queens where she grew up. “I miss the people of Queens,” she said. “They are really down to earth and not afraid to talk. They easily start conversations.
She joined a Presbyterian church in Water Mill, another Southampton hamlet, and it has become one of the few places where she feels a sense of belonging.
Otherwise, she still spends a lot of time on the North Fork. “It feels like home,” she said. She plays live music and she likes to “hit all the old joints”.
Ms Coppola is able to cover her rent and living expenses with a combination of income from her concerts and the day job on the Shinnecock reservation, which she has had for the past six years. She is not a member of the community, but she is grateful to have the opportunity to work with people and she admires the way they help each other.
She is rewarded with her work and more recently Covid relief funds have helped every rehab case that has been brought to her office. “When you help people,” she said, “you always feel better.”