The New York Times reports on new initiative in Farmingdale to tackle same old problem: Illegal Accessory Apartments
Village Moves to Deter Illegal Housing
By LINDA SASLOW
The signs that a house was being used by more than one family were clear to officials of the Village of Farmingdale: more than one doorbell, more than one electric or water meter, more than one mailbox or welcome mat. Now those signs mean the village can pursue the landlords for illegal occupancy.
Officials in Farmingdale estimated that their village of 8,500 was home to more than 100 illegally occupied houses, and they decided to clamp down. Last month, the trustees passed an illegal occupancy law that carries fines of up to $3,500 for landlords who disregard the village zoning code.
The law identified characteristics, like multiple doorbells or utility meters, that would allow officials to presume that a home was occupied by more than one family. If those characteristics are found, it is now the owner’s responsibility to explain why it looks as if more than one family lives there.
“This stiff penalty is necessary in order to take the profit out of the illegal use of the property,” said the village administrator, Dave Smollett. “Fines of a few hundred dollars didn’t deter the violators who have been draining the village with renters who are using our community services without paying property or school taxes.”
The Farmingdale law was modeled after a similar “presumption code” in Lynbrook that went into effect in 2004. Mike Ryder, the superintendent of buildings in Lynbrook, said that 45 cases had been prosecuted under the law, resulting in fines and changes by landlords to make houses comply with the village code.
The problem of illegal housing is not unique to these two small villages; it is a problem across Long Island, which has a shortage of affordable rental units. There are no accurate figures for the number of illegal apartments, but it has been estimated at tens of thousands.
Illegal occupancy falls into two main categories: accessory apartments, in which owners rent out part of their home to generate extra income, and overcrowded rentals, where a landlord packs many tenants — often illegal immigrants — into small spaces with unsafe conditions in what was designed as a single-family home.
Enforcement of illegal housing is up to individual towns and villages. Across the Island, efforts to restrict illegal living arrangements have included raids on homes, like those in Farmingville last summer, and new codes that forbid more than two or three unrelated people to live in the same house.
In the Town of Huntington, 10,000 families live in illegal apartments, said Susan Lagville, the executive director of Housing Help, a housing counseling agency.
Although Huntington has put a program in place to help homeowners comply with legal requirements for accessory apartments, it is often an expensive process, Ms. Lagville said.
“To create legal accessory apartments in some of the town’s older homes, owners have to make changes in their entire house to bring it up to date with all codes,” she said.
In Nassau County, former District Attorney Denis Dillon deemed the problem of illegal housing critical enough to commission a grand jury to conduct a study on the issue. Its report has not yet been released.
And Suffolk County recently enacted a measure to provide seed money to municipalities that agreed to adopt stricter codes on illegal housing, similar to those in Farmingdale and Lynbrook. The Town of Islip and the Villages of Patchogue and Brightwaters have inquired about adopting such a measure, said Steve Levy, the Suffolk County executive.
The county measure “allows the burden to be shifted from the town to the landlord where there are obvious curbside indications of multifamily use,” Mr. Levy said.
“Since it’s often difficult for a municipality to get a search warrant, the policy relies on outside indicators without being necessary to get inside the premises,” he said. “Then it is up to the landlord to prove that he is in compliance with the law. We’re not saying that there shouldn’t be accessory apartments — just that they should be legal, with proper maintenance and repairs.”
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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The problem -- illegal accessory apartments in single-family homes -- has been with us for decades. Compounded by escalating housing costs, fewer housing starts, little in the way of "affordable" housing, and a major influx of new residents to Long Island (many of whom are themselves illegal), the crisis has reached epidemic proportions, threatening not only basic community services such as fire, water, sanitation and schools, but the very property tax base that is our island's lifeline.
Various solutions put into play -- including the enactment of local laws making it easier for municipalities to enforce the code and imposing stiffer penalties -- have done little to stem the tide.
Ordinances, similar to the law adopted in the Village of Farmingdale, have been on the books for some time in places like the villages of Lynbrook and New Hyde Park, and have become part of broader programs -- as in the Towns of Huntington and North Hempstead -- to both eradicate illegal housing and increase the availability of legal, affordable housing.
The impact of such Ordinances has been nominal, at best.
The Town of Hempstead, which probably has more illegal apartments per capita than anywhere on Long Island, upped the ante on fines and penalties, and gave Building Inspectors additional weapons to add to their arsenal, more than a year ago. Still, illegal accessory apartments -- many in basements and cellars -- continue to proliferate virtually at will, often posing a danger to their occupants, and a burden to the neighboring community and its taxpayers.
There has even been an attempt, ongoing as far as we know, to reclassify single family homes known to harbor illegal accessory apartments as commercial properties for property tax assessment purposes. While a good idea, in theory, the plan has yielded little result in practice, and the invasion of illegal rental apartments continues.
Clearly, whatever it is that our towns and villages are doing (or not doing) -- leaving aside very real issues of enforcement procedures and practices, the shortcomings of the courts, and the indifference of the general population -- the battle to stem the tide of illegal accessory apartments has officials and homeowners alike bogged down in the bunkers.
So what are our options? Continue to beef up local laws, imposing hefty fines, and hope against hope that illegal rentals will simply go away? Even all-out assaults have failed dismally in terms of remediation.
What is necessary is a comprehensive affordable housing plan for our Long Island, one that takes into consideration the full spectrum of issues that manifest themselves in the illegal apartment dilemma.
This includes, necessarily, if far from the suburban ideal, the legalization of such accessory apartments that meet or exceed local code provisions, and whose owners and/or occupants contribute, in real dollars, to the local tax burden; the elimination, through vigorous enforcement and the imposition of both civil and criminal penalties, of cellar apartments, which are illegal under almost every town/village code; the creation of "affordable" housing units -- including rental -- located in or in close proximity to the "downtown" business areas of towns, villages and hamlets (both incorporated and unincorporated), this as part and parcel of an overall, comprehensive strategic plan to revitalize these areas, many of which are now economically depressed and on the verge of becoming Long Island's next brownfields.
The ideas floating about in the perilous waters that surround the illegal rental/affordable housing debate are many and varied. Too often, these waters are muddied by side bars and nonsequitors that have little if anything to do with either the problem or the solution.
Now is the time to bring at least some of these ideas -- more than a handful of which have validity -- to the shore.
The Community Alliance calls upon community leaders and elected officials both to put practical, workable, and all-embracing solutions to the illegal rental/affordable housing crisis on the table.
Today is the time to take action. There simply is no tomorrow for any of us here on our Long Island!