Friday, October 06, 2006

Hitting The Illegal Landlord Where It Hurts. . .

. . .In The Pocketbook!

We've been bellyaching here, along with many local community activists, about the growing scourge of illegal accessory apartments in single family homes. Indeed, this "concern" was the primary moving force behind the formation of The Community Alliance in the first place.

Many a blogpost on what should be a hot button issue (check the archives), but not nearly enough effort from Albany, the county seat, or town hall.

Years, if not decades, go by, with little if any action from government -- local or State -- other than to add more unenforced or unenforceable laws to the books.

Indeed, the very roots of the problem -- skyrocketing property taxes and the lack of affordable housing -- have yet to be addressed, let alone addressed adequately, by the State, by the counties, or by the multitude of townships that have borne witness to the growing epidemic of illegal rental units.

Ideas are tossed about in State and local legislatures. Bills stall, die, or evolve into impotent laws that, even if enforced, do nothing to stem the tide. And the problem not only persists, it grows, threatening to destroy the very fabric of our suburban way of life.

Agree or disagree, absent other authority, or even so much as a willingness to get off of square one, the only game in town (literally) aimed at getting a handle on the illegal rental horror show comes out of the office of the Nassau County Assessor, Harvey Levinson.

Yes, use the dreaded reassessment to the advantage of law-abiding homeowners for a change: Reclassify single family homes that serve as multi-family boarding houses as the commercial properties they are, and tax the illegal landlord into submission.

The so-called Levinson Plan on illegal housing is far from perfect. Surely, it is no panacea, no long term solution to the ills of the illegal rental -- from their burden on local services such as schools and fire departments, to their danger to occupants and homeowners alike -- but at least it is a useful tool in sending the message home, if not added much needed dollars to the coffers.

"Every weapon at our disposal." That's what town, county and State officials have told us they would use to fight the battle against illegal accessory apartments, and ultimately, to win the war.

Those "weapons" have thus far proven most elusive, if not entirely nonexistent, the mass distraction on the part of the respective legislative bodies amounting to little more than a war of words and a battle of wits -- half, dim, and otherwise.

Many are tired hearing about the illegal rental crisis. Frankly, we've tired writing about it. And all of us, as residents, as homeowners, as taxpayers, should be tired of paying through the nose for it, as our property taxes escalate, while illegal landlords reap profits as result of a need too long unaddressed.
By the way, Harvey Levinson isn't running for re-election this year, or for any other elected office. Yet, he is one among only a few elected officials who not only talks the talk on illegal housing, but continue to pursue avenues of relief from this "scourge upon suburbia."

We wonder where all those other voices have gone? Would that the watchdogs, the guardians, and the representatives of the people, wherever they may be, would add not only their voices, but their actions.

Election Day is Tuesday, November 7th.
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From the editorial pages of Newsday:

Make landlords pay heavy taxes
A good way to attack illegal housing

It's not going to completely solve the problem and may even make part of it worse. But Nassau County Assessor Harvey Levinson deserves kudos for doing what he can to discourage the spread of illegal housing.

Levinson's approach makes innovative use of the only weapon at his office's disposal - tax assessments - to squeeze some of the profit from illegally converting single-family homes to apartments. He does this by assessing these homes as if they were businesses, which they are - and which means their owners must pay a far higher tax than most similar residential real estate in the county.

For example, Levinson's actions boosted the school taxes on a Plainview split-level - built to house one family in a residential neighborhood - from $5,326 to $29,377. His office found that it had been converted, without town approval, to a boarding house. The added taxes, Levinson hopes, will discourage this landlord and others from dividing up homes and renting them out to multiple occupants.

In fact, Levinson reported, more than a dozen landlords threw in the towel and rented their houses out to a single family. Although a drop in the bucket, it's a start.

Illegal conversions have become blights on many neighborhoods and can be a danger to the tenants. The houses often are poorly maintained, as absentee landlords seek to keep down their expenses. That can depress the value of surrounding homes. The extra residents also put a burden on public services, such as schools and waste collection, without contributing any more tax revenues to pay for them.

But illegal housing stems from a demand for affordable housing, especially needed to attract young workers to area businesses. And cracking down on illegal units - particularly in poorer communities - may only raise the pressure on demand, and so inspire more landlords to risk illegal conversions. Levinson is doing his part with his powers, but officials in the villages, towns and county must do everything possible to encourage production of more affordable homes.

Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.

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