“Nothing like living next to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world,” Liza Coppola said. One in particular, Coopers Beach, is often included on lists of the top 10 beaches in the country. “Only problem is, I’m not allowed to go there.”
Coopers Beach, she explained, is a Southampton village beach, not to be confused with a beach in the larger town of Southampton. If you want a parking permit for the village beaches you have to live in the village. Ms. Coppola does not. She lives in a section of Southampton called Tuckahoe. “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 that’s too steep, so she finds other ways to get to the sought-after seascape. “I can park near the town beach and walk along the sand to Coopers — it’s only a couple of miles.”
Like Coopers Beach, there is very little about the village of Southampton that feels 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 drive takes at least a half-hour, but the savings make it worth it.
She works as a housing assistant on the nearby Shinnecock Reservation, helping direct funding from U.S. Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, to rehabilitate homes. “Some of these houses are so deteriorated,” she said, “you wouldn’t want to live in them.”
She says most of the people she knows in the Shinnecock community face a similar dynamic of being priced out of the place they live. “They go to the Stop & Shop in Hampton Bays because it’s cheaper than the one in Southampton — by a third, easily.”
The prices at farm stands are out of reach for her, too. “If I want to go to one, it’s insane,” she said. “And I’m not having it. I’ve been coming to farm stands out here for 30 years — I’m not paying $15 for a quart of strawberries. Not doing it.”
At 63, Ms. Coppola is a rare breed in Southampton: a full-time renter. “I have a Ph.D. in the school of hard knocks,” she said. “Never been rich, but I’ve always found my way.”
Ms. Coppola was a homeowner on 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 eventually had to give it up in 2019 in a short sale.
She rented a place in Mattituck on the North Fork for a few months before she moved into her current apartment in November of 2019.
“So that’s the story of how I became a renter,” she said.
She liked living in Mattituck and wasn’t looking to leave, but when her landlord told her that he needed the garage apartment back so he could use it for extended family, she had to look for options.
$1,094 | Southampton
Liza Coppola, 63
Occupation: Housing assistant and musician
On the Summer Vibe: Ms. Coppola said that Covid has colored the way summer visitors spend their time in the Hamptons. “When people come out,” she said, “they rent a beautiful home, keep 50 people in there, and they don’t go out all that much.”
On Her Song Book: Ms. Coppola has performed music for 15 years, playing mostly acoustic rock covers — a lot of ballads and songs with a folk soul. “I’m a troubadour girl,” she says. “I like reminding people of the songs they love.”
Because she’s spent years working on housing issues — first at a nonprofit in Greenport and now with the Shinnecock community — Ms. Coppola knew she would qualify for HUD developments projects intended for people making less than the area median income of $100,722.
There were a few such apartment buildings in the nearby town of Riverhead, but the waiting lists were long. She looked at the open market, too, but didn’t see many listings. “There are very few available apartments — and that’s a problem.”
One agent told me that many Hamptons landlords are altogether reluctant to lease their apartments and homes to full-time tenants like Ms. Coppola because they can make more money renting at a premium during the summer months.
Seeking more options, still, Ms. Coppola searched a 40-mile radius. That’s when she unexpectedly found a possibility in Southampton: Construction on the Sandy Hollow Cove Apartments, a HUD development, was complete and the management was accepting applications from households with 80 percent or less of the area median income.
Ms. Coppola put in an application and, three weeks later, she was notified that one of the 28 new apartments was hers. “Which never happens,” she said. “These places have waiting lists for years — I’ve seen it through my work.”
She guesses that the development wasn’t overwhelmed by applications because there was very little trumpeting of the project — as far as she could tell. “You know how Southampton can be,” she said, “God forbid you have affordable housing. So it was almost like this big secret. Nobody really knew about it.”
But she did — thanks to a mention at 27east.com, an online aggregator of local newspapers. “This place is just perfect for me.”
Her alcove studio 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 Ms. Coppola’s affinity for the beach: “The minute she gets 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 cleared out by 9:30 because everyone’s at work.”
It hasn’t been so easy making friends in Southampton. She has a few family members a short drive away, and a lot of people back in Queens where she grew up. “I miss Queens people,” she said. “They’re just really down to earth and not afraid to talk. They start up conversations easily.”
She joined a Presbyterian church in Water Mill, another hamlet of Southampton, and it’s become one of the few places where she feels a sense of belonging.
Otherwise, she still spends a lot of her time on the North Fork. “It just feels like home,” she said. She plays music gigs, and she likes to “hit up all the old joints.”
Ms. Coppola is able to cover her rent and living expenses with a combination of income from her gigs and the day job on the Shinnecock Reservation, which she’s had for the past six years. She isn’t a member of the community, but she’s grateful for the opportunity to work with the people, and she admires how they look out for each other.
She gets gratification from her job, and more recently, Covid relief funds have made it possible to help with each rehabilitation case that’s been brought to her office. “When you help people,” she said, “you always feel better.”