Friday, November 20, 2009

POINT~COUNTERPOINT: On Legalizing Basement Apartments

Should Illegal Accessory Apartments Come Out Of The Cellar?

From the Herald Community Newspapers:

How the county exec can beat high property taxes
By Scott Brinton

As it turns out, we might have a new Nassau County executive. Last Friday, Republican challenger Ed Mangano led incumbent Democrat Tom Suozzi by nearly 500 votes. Paper ballots were yet to be counted, but according to election officials, Republicans ballots outnumbered Democratic ones. Translation: Suozzi might be out of a job. We’ll see in a couple of weeks, after the counting is complete.

Days after the election, Suozzi wrote an opinion piece in Newsday titled “Let the county executive run the schools.” His position was this: People are mad as hell about property taxes, and they voted against him to send a message to government. They want their property-tax increases stopped.

In Nassau County, the biggest portion of our property-tax bills goes to the schools — roughly 66 percent. Suozzi proposed — as he has for some time — that the schools be put under the county executive’s control. This way, he said, the county’s 58 school districts would unite under one system, eliminating 57 school superintendents. It would be similar, he said, to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s takeover of New York City schools.

Such talk, to my mind, was in part what got Suozzi in trouble in this election. People might rant and rave against high taxes, but for the most part, residents are satisfied with the quality of education our children are receiving. Suozzi himself often boasts that Nassau has among the best school districts in the country, with 10 of the nation’s Top 100 high schools. Generally speaking, county students test well above state averages, dropout rates are low and college acceptance rates are high. So why would we want to consolidate districts that are working well and replace them with an unknown system that could significantly alter the way in which our children are educated?

Under Suozzi’s proposed single-district system, the county could reduce funding to the schools whenever it ran out of money, which seems to be every eight years, resulting in teacher layoffs and reduced services. Particularly vulnerable to the budget ax would be elementary-school “specials,” such as computers and foreign languages, which are not state-mandated but are now offered in any number of districts.

Would we really want to live under a system in which, year in, year out, full-day kindergarten could be on the chopping block, or rationed only to underperforming schools? Would we really want to live under a system in which a county executive could fill his education department with patronage jobs held by appointees without degrees or backgrounds in teaching? I don’t think so.

Even amid economic crises, most Long Island school districts have traditionally passed their budgets. People are willing to support the schools because quality school districts support higher property values, and most people’s “wealth” is tied up in their home equity. Reduce people’s property values and that wealth evaporates, so most folks are protective of their schools — and their local control of them.

New York City was different. There the schools were a disaster. Martial law was needed.

Are there pockets of failure here? Absolutely. Should the state do more to prop up the weaker districts? Absolutely. Should we simply accept high property taxes? No. Suozzi has proposed — and Mangano has conceded — that districts should consolidate “backroom” services — legal, accounting and such. I agree. The potential savings are huge.

At the same time, the next county executive should look at imaginative ways to help homeowners afford their property taxes. For several years I have proposed that the county work with the towns to permit homeowners to legalize illegal basement apartments. If residents could rent out part of their homes, they would be able to better afford their taxes — legally — and people would be better able to move from community to community, so we’d probably have less of the self-segregation by income bracket and race that we’ve seen on Long Island since Levittown was built in 1947.

For sure, Nassau needs more rental properties. Only 18.6 percent of the county’s homes are rental units, according to the Long Island Association. Compare that with wealthy Westchester, where 36 percent are rentals.

Many middle-age residents with children need higher incomes to afford their property taxes, but are afraid to rent out their basements for fear of getting in trouble with the law. Young people need affordable housing, but too often can’t find any, so they move elsewhere. To me, so-called “accessory” apartments — that is, apartments within single-family homes — seem like a perfect match. I’ve asked Suozzi about the idea a number of times over the years. No response.

Meanwhile, the Town of Riverhead in Suffolk County recently legalized accessory apartments, so long as they conform to local building codes. “Beyond addressing the lack of cheaper housing, the accessory apartments ... are intended to help elderly and low-income homeowners meet their monthly costs,” Phil Cardinale, the Riverhead town supervisor, told The New York Times in 2008.

Hmmm. A system that allows people to keep local control of their schools and helps them afford their property taxes. Brilliant, simply brilliant. The next county executive, whoever he is, would be wise to at least consider it.

Scott Brinton is senior editor of the Bellmore and Merrick Heralds and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Graduate Journalism Program. Comments? or (516) 569-4000 ext. 203.
- - -
Legalizing Basement Apartments Not A “Perfect Match”

We all agree that property taxes in Nassau County are too high, and that the school portion, accounting for nearly 70% of that tax, is placing an undue, if not unbearable burden upon homeowners.

To ease that burden, and perhaps, to actually lower the property tax, a consolidation of "backroom" operations -- the administrative side of running a school district -- is most certainly in order. Whether or not to consolidate school districts under the control of the County Executive, as Tom Suozzi has suggested, is less clear (but surely worthy of consideration and debate), not so much as a matter of cost-savings (at $200,000+ a pop for Superintendents, and six-figures for a host of deputies and assistants, the savings over Nassau's 56 school districts would likely be substantial), but as to the possible impact on the quality of education, which is disparate from district to district.

As to legalizing illegal basement apartments in single-family homes, as Scott Brinton proposes -- not as a way to lower those unreasonably high property taxes, but rather, as a means to enable homeowners to pay them -- let's think this one through.

To begin with, basement apartments, although prolific, are illegal in every town on Long Island, and for good reason. Access and egress are often limited, making such apartments fire traps. Ventilation is often lacking, giving rise to problems ranging from increased incidence of asthma (especially among children), to the increased risk of carbon monoxide poisoning from furnaces and water heaters, typically located in the basement.

Basement apartments are often not up to code, with inadequate wiring, plumbing, and substandard construction, none of which is likely to improve through their legalization, particularly in towns where building departments lack either the will or the means to inspect, let alone, where appropriate, to summons and enforce.

Basement apartments have a tangible, negative impact on the tax base. Renters do not pay property taxes, and yet, the occupants of such apartments use essential services -- schools, water, sanitation, police, fire -- that must still be paid for, presumably by homeowners, through, you guessed it, increased property taxes.

If we are to legalize basement apartments, who will monitor that they are up to code and fit for habitation? What impact would such legalization have upon the homeowner/landord's assessment? [Surely, the assessment would rise, resulting in still higher property taxes.] Would fees for permits, use and occupancy, tantamount to a tax on homeowners who maintain accessory apartments, offset any income derived from the now legal apartment, defeating the incentive to legalize? [If homeowners face a tax increase, or other fees, to legalize, why would they not continue to simply fly under the radar?]

And what of the poor homeowner who chooses not to rent out his basement, cellar, or attic, instead maintaining a traditional single-family home rather than a boarding house? Is he to be penalized by still higher taxes, paying a premium because every other house on the block is now a multi-family dwelling, whose occupants (save the homeowner/landlord) pay no tax at all?

Yes, we need more rental units and affordable housing on Long Island. Yes, there is a place for legalized accessory apartments, such as will accommodate extended families. Yes, our property taxes are out of control, begging for a rational, pragmatic way to lower them, not for a dubious -- if inherently dangerous -- way to boost homeowners' income as a means to pay them.

Seth D. Bykofsky,
West Hempstead, New York

The writer is a past president of the West Hempstead Civic Association, and a co-founder of The Community Alliance, a quality of life watchdog group.

No comments:

Post a Comment