Monday, April 14, 2008

Should We Legalize Illegal Accessory Apartments?

Yes. No. Maybe. All Of The Above.

Illegal accessory apartments. Long the bane of suburbia, except to the growing number of owners of single-family homes who have seen fit to supplement incomes -- and, in many ways, change the landscape of Long Island -- by adding additional kitchens and baths to their homes, and renting out attics, basements, garages, and second floors.

As we've argued over the years [indeed, as an initial platform for The Community Alliance], illegal accessory apartments not only clog up suburban streets with cars and, in many instances, pose a safety hazard for renters and homeowners alike, they often place an undue -- and costly -- burden upon local services, from sanitation to schools; services that are paid for by law-abiding property owners through an increase in the property tax brought on by the artificial increase in property values where single-family homes become defacto two-family homes.

And yet, despite efforts to reclassify single-family homes as multiple dwellings for tax purposes, and promises of greater enforcement -- presumably enabled by new laws on the already stretched books that allow for "nail and mail" service and the counting of utility meters as "indicia" of illegal apartments -- the unlawful units (and there are thousands of them in our townships) not only persist, they proliferate.

For all of our objections to density and growth, here we are, increasing density in our suburban oasis perhaps ten-fold, if not vertically in our attics, then subteranoeously in cellars and basements.

If the illegal accessory apartment is more difficult to eradicate than a drug-resistant staph infection, why not simply legalize it, charge a permit fee that would supplement local services such as school districts, and call it a day?

After all, we already have legal Mother-Daughter apartments, and seniors who are homeowners can lawfully rent out apartments in their single-family homes. [Both situations require permits -- which many do not bother to apply for -- but why not open the door to every homeowner?]

Would this not be a source of revenue, a stream that now escapes local government, rental income only going so far as the greedy landlord's pocket?

And what about Generation Next? Exactly where will our children live (other than in our basements)?

Is legalizing a practical solution -- or at least a part of the solution -- to the lack of affordable housing? [A chicken in every pot, and an accessory apartment in every single-family house.]

"If we're already doing it anyway..."

Then again, are we only deluding ourselves into believing that those who rent illegally, and reap the profits therefrom, will own up to their deeds by securing expensive permits?

Would homeowners turned landlords consider this but another unfair tax -- call it "congestion home ownership" -- upon their precious right to the free alienation of their property?

And who's kidding whom about enforcement, either on the collection end, or in seeking out and bringing to justice the homeowner who will, the availability of lawful means aside, continue to rent illegally?

As reported in The New York Times, some towns have already made the move toward legalizing the accessory apartment, at least on a more or less limited basis.

Results and opinions vary, and concerns over the propriety and utility of such a move have been raised.

Still, the debate at this juncture is warranted, and, in the hope of reaching common ground, with accommodation satisfactory to all, we put the question out there to the readers of this blog -- Should we legalize Illegal accessory apartments?

With little actually happening on the illegal rental front, the least we can do at this point is to stir the pot, and get the discussion going.

E-mail us with your thoughts, comments, and suggestions at
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From The New York Times:

In the Region Long Island

Legalizing In-Home Apartments

ONE of the biggest obstacles to creating affordable housing across Long Island has been residents’ aversion to the imposing size of concentrated dwellings like multistory apartment buildings and attached-home communities.

Last month, the town of Riverhead found a way to increase the number of affordable homes while avoiding the size issue altogether. Its board passed a law that legalizes the creation of apartments in single-family homes, so long as they conform to local building codes.

The law allows the apartments within a house, or in a detached garage, and applications must be approved by a review board. The homeowner must live either in the main part of the house or in the apartment.

Beyond addressing the lack of cheaper housing, the accessory apartments, as these converted properties are called, are intended to help elderly and low-income homeowners meet their monthly costs, said Phil Cardinale, the town supervisor. As an afterthought, he added, the board agreed to waive fines for homeowners who have illegal apartments in their homes, as long as they bring the units up to code.

The need for the apartments is acute. Only 18.6 percent of the housing stock in Suffolk and 18.1 percent in Nassau are rental apartments, according to a report issued by Pearl M. Kamer, chief economist for the Long Island Association, a business and civic organization. That is about half of the 36 percent in Westchester County and lower than other similar counties in the metropolitan area, according to the report.

But laws like the one in Riverhead, which have also been enacted in Babylon and Huntington farther west, fall short of providing incentives to homeowners to create apartments in their homes, said Peter Elkowitz, persident of the Long Island Housing Partnership, a nonprofit housing organization. Aside from the cost of building an apartment to code, property tax assessments often increase when a rental apartment is added.

“In other parts of the world,” Mr. Elkowitz said, “they encourage people with a tax benefit if they bring their apartments up to code. I haven’t heard of one anywhere in the U.S.; in order to keep an elderly parent living in the home in New York, you are usually penalized for it because it increases taxes on that accessory apartment.”

Rental income could also make some elderly residents ineligible for programs that grant them property tax abatements if their incomes are below a set threshold, according to Laverne Tennenberg, the chairwoman of the Riverhead board of assessors.

Related issues yet to be determined in Riverhead include how much garbage collection fees for homes with accessory apartments will increase the property tax bill, Ms. Tennenberg said.

Across the Island, as in Riverhead, many low-income communities have met the need for affordable housing with illegal apartments in single-family homes. Some convert a basement into an apartment, even though it has no outside exit; others build partitions in the house.

One reason that such apartments haven’t been legalized in more communities is local residents’ opposition to increasing numbers of illegal immigrants.

The immigrants, mainly Hispanic laborers performing low-paying jobs shunned by local residents, have intensified demand for inexpensive rentals, said Lee E. Koppelman, director of the Center for Regional Policy Studies at Stony Brook University. (Mr. Koppelman spent 40 years as director of the Long Island Planning Board.)

Some property owners have capitalized on the demand, renting out single-family homes to 20 or more people. This means workers “are just basically renting mattress space on the floor,” Mr. Koppelman said. Opposing rental apartments, he added, “is kind of code for, ‘If we have renters, we might have those people in the neighborhood,’ ” meaning illegal immigrants and minorities.

In March, a fire above an auto repair shop in a commercial zone of the village of Hempstead displaced three families living in illegal apartments on the upper floors. At another building fire in the village a week earlier, firefighters found one-bedroom apartments crowded with several immigrant families, said Wayne J. Hall, the village mayor.

The village passed a law in August cracking down on illegal apartments and has issued 150 summonses so far to homeowners whose homes display evidence of illegal apartments, including multiple utility boxes and several satellite dishes on the roof, Mr. Hall said.

Harvey B. Levinson, the Nassau County assessor, called the phenomenon “an enormous problem in communities where the home prices are at the low end of the spectrum, like Elmont, West Hempstead, Levittown, Hicksville and the village of Hempstead.” Short of cracking down on the owners of these properties, he added, there is not much that local government can do.

He also asserted that even if many towns were to adopt laws like the one in Riverhead, with a provision for illegal apartments to be brought up to code without a fine, there was little hope that people would apply to do so. That is because most illegal apartments are in basements, he pointed out, explaining that “you usually can’t make them legal” because they have no separate exit in case of fire.

If a makeshift apartment is convertible, the cost of bringing it up to code can also be an obstacle. “There really isn’t enough incentive if someone is doing it illegally at the present time,” said Mr. Koppelman.

There has been a general failure in Long Island towns to shut down illegal apartments, he added.
“If they do enforce the law and put people on the sidewalk, they also have to be prepared to provide substitute housing.”

But given the potential pitfalls, it is uncertain just how many people will take advantage of the new law in Riverhead.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

1 comment:

  1. One problem on this Island is housing for young adults. I'm watching most students at a loss for independence because of the high costs of living on their own, and as a result having to move off the Island. I think any community that begins to loss its young people is in trouble. Anything we can do to make housing more affordable for students right out of college will help us in the long run.