Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The State of the Community

The Community Alliance, a quality of life watchdog group, offers the following perspective on the state of our community:

To look around our community – and we include every town, village and hamlet in the County as part and parcel of our “community” – little appears to have changed on the surface. Scratching just beneath that surface, however, we find that significant gains are being made – primarily as a direct result of an effective partnership between community organizations and the various strata of government that represent our villages and hamlets.

While illegal rentals continue to pot-mark our communities, escalating property taxes, reducing services, creating a clear and present danger for their inhabitants and eroding quality of life, action by State, County and Town, in terms of legislative initiatives, has provided the weapons and armor necessary to fight the battles and, yes, win the war.

From increasing fines and penalties to a level that truly stings the illegal landlord, rather than merely imposing a “cost of doing business,” to the recently enacted “Nail & Mail” statute, to the reclassification of multiple family dwellings that masquerade as single family houses as commercial properties for purposes of property tax assessment, the foundation has been laid and the message is beginning to resonate – illegal rental apartments have no place in suburbia and will not be tolerated!

Now, we ask that an additional weapon be called forth onto the battlefield – a Town Ordinance holding real estate brokers, agents and salespeople liable for listing, soliciting and/or showing houses with known or obvious illegal apartments. Let us, in the Town of Hempstead, follow the lead of townships such as North Hempstead and insist on accountability from the community of Realtors as we do from the community at large.

Armed with the weapons of mass deterrence, let us not be afraid or otherwise unwilling to use them. Every statute and ordinance on the books is only as good as the enforcement that shall follow. Enforcement on the building and zoning front, at least for those of us who reside in the unincorporated areas of the township, is the province of Town government. Let us make this the year we enforce the laws already on the books with the same vigor our legislators exert in putting new laws in those books!

One cannot have a meaningful discussion of illegal apartments without acknowledging the flip-side of the coin – the woeful lack of affordable housing on our Long Island. Our housing stock has become out of reach – not only for prospective homeowners, who cannot afford the “asking price,” but for existing homeowners as well, who cannot afford to pay upwards of $10,000 per year in regressive property taxes.

Where open land is available, we quickly build for the highest bidder, leaving aside little if any “scraps” for the middle income wage earner – let alone those who teeter on the brink of being “housing poor.”

Today, we call upon State, County and Town to recognize affordable housing as a critical issue in our communities, and to establish affordable housing empowerment zones within our communities, offering economic incentives to builders and contractors, streamlining the zoning process, and making public building sites now considered for private sale as available not for the building of high six-figure condominiums, but for safe, accessible and affordable housing for those who need it most – our seniors, our workforce and our housing displaced.

Let this be the year when the vision of economic development finally moves from drawing board and talking points to action and result in our communities; where brownfields become green spaces; where abandoned buildings and outdated manufacturing centers are given new lives as affordable housing; where “Main Street” once again becomes the thriving center of neighborhood life; where development and growth are “smart” and planned, and zoning laws are strictly enforced rather than carved off the bone and mutilated with exceptions.

Let this be the year when no school district is left behind; where every teacher – whether in Wyandanch or Great Neck, Roosevelt or Garden City – has the tools necessary to teach, and every student, from Buffalo to Bellmore, has the resources to learn.

We call upon our State Legislators and the Governor to do more than pay lip service to finding practical and workable solutions to how our school districts are funded; to adequately and equally provide aid to every district; to return the fair share of State income taxes to the community; to utilize the State Lottery exclusively for the purpose it was intended – education; to make certain that no child is deprived of the opportunity to learn in a safe and nurturing environment; to relieve our school districts of unfunded mandates; and, at long last, to fund our schools on time.

At the same time, we ask our school administrators to curtail costs and expenditures wherever and whenever possible; to trim administrative costs in favor of meeting the needs of our children; to consolidate services and collaborate with neighboring districts; to scrutinize every line of the annual budget and publicly account for every penny.

And while you’re at it up in Albany, let us make this the year when the property tax crisis is finally addressed – and with more than mere platitudes such as the much-touted STAR program; an initiative tied to a failed tax system that portends to put money in our pockets while skyrocketing tax rates wipe out any savings to the already overburdened homeowner.

While no one can disagree (at least not with a straight face) that Albany needs fixing, sometimes that which is broken cannot be fixed. Let’s send to the scrap heap that which no longer works, bringing fresh ideas and new faces to the table. FixAlbany is an imperative. So is FixNassau and FixTheTown. Let’s work to clean our own houses, our own county, our own communities, as we do our utmost to make Albany work for us.

Let this be the year when we stop pointing fingers and placing blame, instead rolling up our sleeves to work for the greater good of the community. We are not, in the larger sense, Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives. We are Long Islanders. We are New Yorkers. We are one community with common concerns in need of shared solutions.

Finally, let this be the year when we, as leaders of the communities that make our island the pride and envy of every New Yorker, join together to tackle the quality of life issues that too often divide and destroy community. We will partner wherever possible with state, county and local government, kicking about ideas, striving toward ideals, and realistically implementing initiatives that restore suburbia while reducing our tax burden. We will reach out to the private sector, looking to revitalize our business districts, our community parks, our somewhat less than pristine landscape. Above all, we, as the penultimate advocates of community, must make this the year that we make up our minds to work together to improve community – our community. In our unparalleled unity as The Community Alliance, there is unprecedented strength. In our combined efforts as the clearinghouse for myriad matters of community concern, local civic groups now speak with a clear and convincing voice. In an era where it is commonplace for the small to be overshadowed, for the fledgling to be stymied, for the quiet to be drowned out, we have made an unmistakable impact, demonstrating to all that the voice of community will not be stifled and cannot be ignored.

There is a resurgence of community here on our island; a rebirth of the suburban way of life our parents and their parents before them envisioned. Today we begin anew our endeavor to reclaim the vision, to restore the glitter, and to redefine both image and reality of the community we call home. We have come a long way in a very short time. We have a long way yet to travel. We look forward to having you with us on what will surely be a journey of renewal; an adventure most rewarding!

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