“There is nothing quite like living next to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world,” said Lisa Coppola. One beach in particular, Coopers Beach, is often included in lists of the 10 best beaches in the country. “The only problem is that I’m not allowed to go there.”
She explained that Coopers Beach is a village beach in Southampton, not to be confused with a beach in the larger city of Southampton. If you want to get a parking permit for the village beaches, you have to live in the village. Mrs. Coppola does not. She lives in a section of Southampton called Tuckahoe. “I had to learn it the hard way with a parking ticket,” she said.
She could have paid the $250 annual fee for those without permits, but that’s way too expensive, so she finds other ways to get to the coveted seascape. “I can park near the city beach and walk along the sand to Coopers – it’s only two miles away.”
Like Coopers Beach, there is very little about the village of Southampton that Mrs. Coppola has easy access to. She said, “It’s not mine.” “I have to leave here to do my shopping – even the supermarkets are expensive.” The ride takes at least half an hour, but the savings make it worth it.
She works as a housing assistant at the nearby Shinnecock Reservation, and helps with direct funding from US Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, to rehabilitate homes. “Some of these homes are so degraded, you wouldn’t want to live in them,” she said.
She says most people she knows in the Shinnecock community experience a similar dynamic of being excluded from where they live. “They go to the Stop & Shop in Hampton Bays because it’s cheaper than in Southampton – a third easily.”
Prices on farmhouses are also out of reach for her. “If I want to go for one,” she said, “that’s crazy.” “And I don’t own it. I came to the farm here 30 years ago—I don’t pay $15 for a quart of strawberries. Don’t.”
The 63-year-old Mrs. Coppola is a rare breed in Southampton: a full-time tenant. “I have a PhD. In swipes school,” she said. “I was never rich, but I always found my way.”
Mrs. Coppola has been a homeowner on the North Fork for 22 years, but when the housing crisis hit, she found herself upside down on her mortgage. She managed to hold out for a while, but eventually had to give it up in 2019 in a short sale.
She rented a place in Matetok on the North Fork for a few months before moving into her current apartment in November of 2019.
“This is the story of how I became a tenant,” she said.
She loved living in Matetok and wasn’t looking forward to leaving, but when the homeowner told her he needed the garage apartment again so he could use it for a large family, she had to research options.
$1,094 | Southampton
Lisa Coppola, 63
Job: Residential assistant and musician
in summer: Ms Coppola said Covid has colored the way summer visitors spend their time in the Hamptons. She said, “When people go out, they rent a nice house, and they keep fifty people there, and they don’t go out much.”
In her songbook: Mrs. Coppola has performed music for 15 years, playing mostly on acoustic rock covers – plenty of ballads and folk songs. “I’m a troubadour girl,” she says. “I like reminding people of the songs they love.”
Because she has spent years working on housing issues – first at a nonprofit in Greenport and now with the Shinnecock community – Ms. Coppola has learned that she will be eligible for HUD development projects intended for people whose income is below the district’s median income of $100,722.
There were a few of these apartment buildings in the nearby town of Riverhead, but the waiting lists were long. She looked at the open market as well, 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 out their apartments and homes to full-time tenants like Ms. Coppola because they can make more money rent in installments during the summer months.
In search of more options, Ms. Coppola is still searching in a 40-mile radius. That’s when I found an unexpected prospect in Southampton: Construction on Sandy Hollow Cove Apartments, a HUD project, had been completed, and management was accepting applications from families with 80 per cent or less of the median income in the area.
Mrs. Coppola submitted an application and, three weeks later, was informed that one of the 28 new apartments belonged to her. “Which never happened,” she said. “These places have waiting lists for years – I’ve seen it through my work.”
She believes that the development wasn’t overwhelmed with applications because there was very little yelling for the project – as far as she knows. “You know what Southampton can be,” she said, “forbid you to have affordable housing. So it was almost such a big secret. Nobody really knows that.”
But she did — thanks to her mention on 27east.com, an online local newspaper aggregator. “This place is perfect for me.”
Her studio is full of plants. “It’s a living apartment,” she said. “You can’t have a garden, so you have to get the garden inside.”
She shares the apartment with Lila, her 11-year-old bikini, who, unfortunately, does not share Ms. Coppola’s affinity for the beach: “The minute she gets sand between her toes, she wants to leave.”
Most of Mrs. Coppola’s neighbors, like her, are working class – librarian, legal assistant. “The parking lot was cleared by 9:30 because everyone is at work.”
Making friends in Southampton has never been so easy. She has a few family members a short drive away, and many people have gone back to Queens where she grew up. “I miss the Queens,” she said. “They are really humble and not afraid to talk. They start conversations easily.”
She joined the Presbyterian Church in Water Mill, another small village in Southampton, and it became one of the few places where she felt a sense of belonging.
Otherwise, she still spends much of her time in the North Fork. “I feel at home,” she said. She plays gigs, and she loves to “hit all the old knuckles.”
Ms. Coppola can cover her rent and living expenses with a combination of income from gigs and a day job at Shinnecock Reservation, which she has been working for the past six years. She is not a member of society, but she is grateful for the opportunity to work with people, and she admires the way they view each other.
She’s got gratitude from her job, and most recently, Covid relief funds have made assistance available in every rehabilitation case brought into her office. “When you help people, you always feel better,” she said.