Illegal Housing ... What are the Real Issues?
by Roy J. Mezzapelle
What is illegal housing? Sounds like a simple question, but it is actually quite complicated. The simple definition of illegal housing is any housing situation that is in violation of any of a number of laws, codes, or ordinances. The complicated part is what illegal housing has done to our community and many like it throughout Long Island, and what to do about it.
In the past month, I've had the opportunity to appear on News12's "At Issue", be interviewed by Newsday and the Long Island Press, and was the first to testify before a (Nassau County) Grand Jury to discuss this very complex issue. One thing was very clear during all of these events, no one is really seeing the big picture on this topic.
If I were new to Long Island, and relied on the "media giants" for my news, I would swear the illegal housing problem consisted of dozens of day-laborers packed into single-family homes. This is so far from the truth, it's hard to believe the media is focusing so much attention on the two recent cases in Suffolk County. While dozens of people in a single-family home certainly creates a problem, the bigger problem is having two or three families in every third or fourth home in a community - especially families with school-age children - adding to the ever-increasing school budgets. Although both situations are illegal, you know where the focus is going to be. What the media has failed to report is that illegal housing spans every race, religion, culture, political affiliation, etc. In fact, it seems that unless the "renter" is Latino, it's not even newsworthy.
When did this become a witch-hunt against the Latino community? The media must refocus on this issue if they are to present the problem in a fair manner. The big picture I referred to in paragraph two is that even without the influx of immigrants or families moving here from outside of Nassau and Suffolk Counties, we would still have a housing shortage and illegal housing problems, just from the children of the those who moved to Long Island in the 50s and 60s. Then factor in that these children are now having children, and you can see the explosive growth problem that we are dealing with.
Picture this. Let's go back 50 years and build Elmont as a self-sufficient community from the ground up. Build 10,000 single-family homes and put one family in each. Now build a brick wall 50 feet high around the entire community - no one gets in and no one gets out, EVER - and you can't build any more homes because there is no room left to do so. Leave all the stores and schools where they are. Now, accelerate ahead 50 years. Where are the kids and the grandkids living? Basements? Attics? Converted garages? Now use the same example, only this time build the wall around Nassau and Suffolk Counties. Getting the big picture?
Now remember, the kids I refer to in the example are now adults and are Elmont's teachers, and police officers, and nurses, and store owners, etc., all law-abiding, professional, middle class families or individuals - yet they are all now living in illegal housing situations. Why? There was nowhere else to go, and government didn't step in to address the problem - no planning - yet these red-blooded, middle-class Americans, born and raised on Long Island, are a large portion of the renters. Now add politics to the mix. What governmental agency is going to evict anyone fitting the above description? Can you picture the headlines if Town of Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray enforced the housing code on a police officer, or a teacher, or a volunteer firefighter, or a senior citizen, or a family with some kid in the little league, even if they ALL lived in illegal housing situations? And lose all those votes? Never!
Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy certainly made headlines when he had dozens of day-laborers evicted from their illegal dwelling. Mr. Levy was in a no-win situation. He chose to act and, right or wrong, he was criticized for it. Had he done nothing and even one of those individuals perished in a fire, he would have been criticized for knowing about the situation and not doing anything. But at least he did SOMETHING!
It has been nearly four years since I formed the Elmont Quality of Life Committee. Since that time we have seen the birth of The Tri-Community Alliance, and we've seen that grow into The Community Alliance. Dozens of communities and hundreds of concerned citizens, and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of complaints submitted to the Town of Hempstead. "Tell us where the problems are, and we'll take care of it," we were promised over and over again. Well, we told them and still the problem gets worse. When residents take time out of their personal lives to help government address a problem, and get little to no action in return, that is unacceptable.
It is government's job to enforce the law. It is not the problem of the law-abiding citizen to determine what to do with people who are living in illegal situations, although it seems it is certainly our problem to shoulder the ever-increasing tax-burden for them to be here. Until a tax base can be established for these families living in illegal situations, I believe that enforcement of the law is the only way to get a handle on this problem.
The Town of Hempstead has failed us miserably. Lip service instead of action. New laws enacted and put on the shelf with the old ones. Empty promises, mailings, public relations campaigns, photo shoots - in other words, business (politics) as usual.
I'm really looking forward to the upcoming election. Win or lose, I can't wait to hear Kate Murray tell us everything she's done to improve our quality of life in Elmont - especially to address the illegal housing issue. After that deafening silence, maybe Harvey Levinson can tell us what to expect if he is elected Supervisor.
So to wrap this up, the story is that unless we can convince people that we just may have to build vertically, Long Island will never have enough housing to legally accommodate all its residents, and as long as the Town of Hempstead and other townships ignore the illegal housing problem, the burden to the non-renting single-family homeowner will go up and up and up until we are all forced to move.
The writer, who serves as Co-Chair of The Community Alliance and Chair of the Elmont Quality of Life Committee, is Publisher of the Elmont Herald, where this article first appeared.
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Stick in your two-cents on the illegal housing crisis, and other critical issues that impact upon our quality of life. Add your comments to this Blog. Submit a "Guest Blog" of your own. Write a Letter to the Editor of Newsday and the local community papers. Attend a meeting of the Town Board and speak your mind (next Town Board Meeting, Tuesday, September 6, 2005 at 7 PM at the Meeting Pavilion at Town Hall in Hempstead).
Be a real part of the solution. Stand up. Speak out. Stay involved!