Damaged smoke detectors and exposed wiring. Sinks and electric stove tops littered with clothes, peanut butter jars, cans and cereal boxes. A cluttered basement apartment with tiny cellar windows as the only means of escape in case of blocked stairs in an emergency.
“Anybody who is looking at this objectively has to say, these are unsafe living conditions,” Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said while showing dozens of photographs taken from last Friday’s police and code enforcement raid at the Wading River Motel.
He said the photos depict code violations at the motel, which the county has been using to house homeless people.
“We didn’t make these pictures up,” Mr. Walter continued from his Town Hall office, where he met with the media on Friday. “These are not doctored photos. This is the way [the motel] looked last week.”
The execution of a search warrant at the motel has sparked a political firestorm, with the county’s social services commissioner publicly accusing town government of civil rights violations and even bigotry, and the Route 25 motel owner threatening a lawsuit against the town — and the town justice who signed off on the warrant.
Mr. Walter shared the photos with the media Friday, a week after the raid, to combat the criticism.
He and town attorney Bob Kozakiewicz said the motel owner also overhauled the electrical and plumbing systems without acquiring the proper permits, and that the owner illegally converted a laundry room into living space since he bought the motel in January.
The town officials said they have no evidence to show kitchenettes ever existed in each of the motel’s 32 rooms, as they do now.
“The certificate of occupancy lists only two efficiencies” for two apartments in the motel’s office areas, Mr. Kozakiewicz said.
Motel owner Anthony Marino showed up at Town Hall to defend his record Friday after catching word of the press event.
In response to reporter questions about the photos, which Mr. Walter did not want to release to the public, he said the stove tops in the rooms are all turned off and inoperable to guests. County officials also said they made sure the stoves were turned off at the breaker during health inspections, which the motel passed.
Mr. Marino said he had been trying to evict a disgruntled ex-employee from what officials are alleging is an illegal basement apartment. And though he admitted to a laundry room that now has beds and a bathroom in it, he said no one has been living there because he was planning to acquire permits for it.
“We only did repairs on what was pre-existing,” he said, while insisting the kitchen areas in each of the rooms had existed before he and his company took over the building. “We did not do any new construction.”
He said he has proof the sinks and stoves existed prior to his buying the motel, like old business cards that list the Wading River Motel’s rooms as having efficiencies.
On what appeared in the photographs to be overcrowded and cluttered conditions in many rooms, Mr. Marino said homeless aid recipients in general don’t have the best “organizational skills.”
“We constantly try to explain to them that they have to keep everything clean,” he said. “I’ll admit things look like a mess in the rooms, but this is a problem generation to generation.”
Mr. Marino, who gets paid stipends of about $96 a day per room by the county Department of Social Services to house homeless there, said he’s been operating similar shelters in New York City and Suffolk for decades, along with his father, a business partner.
In his experience, communities often act unfavorably to such facilities in or near their neighborhoods, he said, but added that he never experienced anything quite like last Friday’s raid, during which occupants were told by police to leave their rooms while authorities photographed their belongings and identifications.
“I’m not a criminal,” he said. “I don’t do criminal activities. I house the homeless.”
During Mr. Walter’s meeting with the press, the supervisor insisted last Friday’s police actions at the motel had only to do with ensuring safe living conditions, even though he believes motels cannot be used as shelters under the town code.
“Let’s get [the motel] opened up, but make sure it’s safe,” he said. “Then we can argue whether the use is allowed.” He has said he expects such an argument to be solved between the town and the county in court.
Mr. Kozakiewicz said code violations related to last Friday’s search would be filed soon in Riverhead Town Justice Court.
As of Wednesday no charges had yet been filed in Justice Court.
But Mr. Marino and his Setauket-based lawyer, John Zukowski, who was also on hand Friday, believe the raid in itself was illegal, and that they would likely be filing a lawsuit against the town. Mr. Marino said they are also “going to go for” Riverhead Town Justice Richard Ehlers, who signed off on the search warrant last Thursday.
Both men also said they would have opened up the motel for a voluntary search at any time.
“Each one of these families [whose rooms were searched],” Mr. Marino said, “their names should have been listed on the warrant. You can’t just search people’s motel rooms. That’s their space. That’s their home at that time. If you were staying at a Holiday Inn someone couldn’t just rifle through your belongings; it’s a violation of your civil rights.”
Mr. Kozakiewicz said in response that such claims “would have to be adjudicated in the courts, if they want to challenge the warrant.”
As for the town’s next move, Mr. Walter said he plans to meet with a county representative and will request that the people be taken from the motel as soon as possible while the town handles the code enforcement issues in Justice Court.
“If not, we’ll move into the Supreme Court…and seek an action of ejectment” to force them to vacate the premises, he said.
Mr. Walter also blasted social services commissioner Greg Blass for publicly denouncing the town’s actions to media and in a 900-word opinion piece that ran in the Aug. 18 News-Review and on RiverheadNewsReview.com.
“It is a little unprofessional for the commissioner of the Department of Social Services to be writing [to the newspaper], especially since we had a conversation Sunday,” he said. “Greg has been shooting from the hip. He does not understand what is going on.”
“If the commissioner is not willing to keep the place safe, I will.”
In his piece, Mr. Blass alleged the raid was illegal because town code requires “there be reasonable cause to believe a violation has occurred, as well as an owner’s refusal or failure to allow an inspection of their rental premises” in order for a search warrant to be signed and executed. He has insisted that the motel owners would have opened the building up to the town at any time.
Town officials used a written complaint from the disgruntled ex-employee, who has been living at the motel even after she was fired, to establish grounds for the search. Mr. Walter said town officials did not want to schedule an inspection ahead of time because that would have allowed the motel’s owner to hide violations. The supervisor also said a code inspector was not granted access to the basement apartment during an April visit, something Mr. Marino emphatically denied.
Mr. Walter also said most of the homeless being housed at the motel are not from the Riverhead area, as Mr. Blass had insisted.
Mr. Blass said Friday he had no regrets for what he’s been saying.
“[Mr. Walter] could say anything he wants about me, he should just leave these people alone,” Mr. Blass said. “I call them as I see them, and if I didn’t say anything, who would? I find it amazing that he triggers this outrage and sits in judgement about my reaction to it. And furthermore, it is my responsibility to speak up for these disenfranchised individuals who did not deserve being bullied like this.”
He said Mr. Marino has a good reputation as a housing provider, and that any issues Mr. Marino had with the town — such as acquiring a rental permit — he had been trying to rectify. Mr. Marino’s lawyer told reporters Friday he had tried on more than one occasion to file a rental permit application with the town and pay the necessary $2,100 fee, but that each time he was told to “hold off.”
He finally was able to do so on Thursday; something the town attorney confirmed.
Mr. Blass said social services, which is mandated by the state to house the county’s homeless, was not placing anyone in the motel’s basement apartment, and added that health inspectors were never denied access to any part of the building. Either way, he said, sending a convey of vans, police officers, code enforcers, a fire marshal and town attorney to the motel last Friday night and forcing people from their rooms was the wrong way to handle any suspicions of code violations.
“I would think that a raid would speak to an emergency level of problems, and there isn’t and there wasn’t,” he said. “I would say that if the town is so concerned about health and safety, why didn’t it show through their concern for the emotional health of the occupants? I think the town is very likely embarrassed, because they drove away with their empty vans and no arrests, except the one traffic violation, and no contraband.”