Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Close Encounters of the Illegal Kind

Addressing The Core Issues On Illegal Accessory Apartments

The following editorial first appeared in the Elmont Herald (Roy J. Mezzapelle, Publisher), and is well worth republishing here at The Community Alliance blog:

Illegal Housing & Illegal Immigration:Two Separate Issues

I feel it necessary to address a very important issue. Lately, especially since The New York Times article titled On Lucille Avenue, the Immigration Debate was published, I see more and more people blaming the illegal housing problem on illegal immigrants. This is simply not the case; and these two unrelated issues, when linked to each other, make it very difficult to address either one effectively.

As you are well aware, the illegal housing problem in Elmont, and throughout Long Island, is blamed on the lack of affordable housing, the lack of housing in general, and high property taxes. While these facts are certainly true, the root problem of illegal housing is a decades old problem that snowballed into the mess it is today by Town governments turning a blind-eye to it when it first became an issue.

In Elmont, with the exception of a few new houses being built on previously vacant land, the number of housing units will never grow in any great numbers because there is simply no room to build more homes. Our big issue is that our population in Elmont will grow by leaps and bounds, not from illegal immigration but from homeowners renting parts of their homes, usually illegally, to those who were born and raised on Long Island and can't afford to purchase a home, yet need or simply want to stay on Long Island.

As I have written in the past, while illegal immigrants certainly occupy illegal residences throughout Elmont, Long Island, and the Nation, these illegal immigrants by no means make up the majority of illegal renters. I've spoken with hundreds of people on this issue, and it seems that it is the middle-class American that makes up the majority of the illegal renters. Teachers, police officers, nurses, college students, and even red-blooded American families with honor-roll students are just some of the many people forced into illegal renting situations.

One misconception, probably brought about by the news media, is the notion that all illegal renters live in deplorable conditions. I've seen rental units in Elmont that would put some Garden City homes to shame. These, however, are the ones you don't see or hear about. What you see on the broadcast media is the non-English or broken-English speaking family, living in unlivable conditions, in over-crowded spaces. This is what perpetuates and leads us to believe that the illegal housing problem is solely an "illegal immigrant" issue.

Now before all of you think I'm getting soft on this issue, believe me I am not. Illegal is illegal; and whether it's immigration or housing, laws pertaining to both need to be enforced. If by enforcing the law it means the removal of family from an illegal apartment, or the deportation of an illegal immigrant from the country, so be it. The law is the law. We simply cannot afford to pay the bill for illegal activity any longer.

And hear this loud and clear, ILLEGAL RENTERS DO NOT PAY PROPERTY TAXES! The notion that a renter pays rent, and the landlord pays the taxes on the house, so therefore the renter pays property taxes, is simply not true.

Illegal housing is a local government issue and can be easily addressed with the laws currently in place; illegal immigration is a more complex issue, especially when it comes to enforcement.

EVERY illegal housing situation in Elmont can be corrected by the Town of Hempstead if they so chose. Unfortunately, and for unknown reasons, they choose to let the problem get worse, at our expense.

In an upcoming edition of the Elmont Herald (to be republished here at The Community Alliance blog) we will show how one local incorporated village has successfully implemented legislation, and enforced that legislation, to combat illegal housing within its borders, while the Town of Hempstead, with more money, personnel, and resources can't seem to, as my father used to say, "find its ass with both hands" on this issue. (My father was very quiet, but came out with some good one-liners when you least expected to hear them.)
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Nassau County Assessor, Harvey Levinson, offers an update on his office's efforts to reclassify single-family homes with illegal accessory apartments as commercial properties for tax purposes. [SEE, Illegal Multi-Family Housing Initiatives.]

In view of the literally thousands of illegal apartments in single-family homes located in Nassau County -- primarily along the forgotten south shore, and within the borders of the Town of Hempstead, America's largest township -- one has to ask, "Why only 24 reclassifications to date from residential to commercial tax rolls?"

The simple answer, as Harvey Levinson points out, is that before the Assessor's office can act, the towns and villages -- in whose hands jurisdiction lies, and upon whose shoulders the apparently overwhelming (as in "why bother trying at all?") burden of enforcement falls -- must act to investigate, and bring to judgment, homeowners acting outside the law.

Granted, the courts -- ill-equipped and not inclined -- have failed us here, too (recall our longstanding request for the township to establish a community court to hold sway over quality of life issues, such as illegal accessory apartments), but the town has primary responsibility in applying and enforcing the code. To say that the Town of Hempstead has been lax and far from proactive on this front is nothing short of understatement.

As Harvey Levinson laments, “I am disappointed that two of the three towns have chosen to ignore my calls over the past two years for a coordinated approach to combating and finding ways to eliminate these firetraps.”

We, too, are disappointed in the inaction and malaise, particularly in America's largest township -- which brings us to the more complex, and most perplexing reason for the stalemate in the battle to eradicate illegal rental apartments: the willingness of law-abiding homeowners (taxpayers all) to put up with the Town's failure to act, in any meaningful way, to resolve this still growing scourge upon our communities.

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