Editorial: Riverhead shouldn’t let up on unsafe rentals crackdown

Sean Walter of Riverhead
NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | Supervisor Sean Walter (right) is saying he won’t let the town — especially the downtown area, in light of recent advances — lose ground to slumlords.

The Riverhead Town Board voted last week to proceed with civil action against the owner of four Polish Town properties, claiming his rental houses are overcrowded and unsafe. While fines can be pursued in Justice Court, state Supreme Court enables the town to not only impose fines but also use the sheriff’s office to force residents from a home the court has deemed unsafe.

The property owner in this case says his houses are not overcrowded or unsafe, and he’s threatening to countersue the town.

While the particulars of any lawsuit are not yet known — the Town Board has only voted to move forward in filing a suit — it’s heartening to see Supervisor Sean Walter describe this measure as part of a larger and more vocal effort to stem the tide of illegal and overcrowded housing, a problem that has plagued downtown and other Riverhead neighborhoods for years.

While police and code enforcement officials in neighboring Southampton Town are apt to kick down doors during the early morning hours and issue criminal charges as well as code violations — followed by press releases with landlords’ names — Riverhead has taken a softer approach in the past.

Town officials have said they work on a case-by-case basis and are always writing tickets, even if they’re not making a big production of it. But the problem has not only persisted, it’s gotten worse.

It seems Mr. Walter and the town are now ready to put on a show. And that’s to be applauded.

“I will not let this town backslide; we’ve made too many strides,” Mr. Walter told the News-Review this week when asked if the Supreme Court action is part of a larger plan to crack down on allegedly illegal housing. “We’re on the cusp of something great here [with downtown revitalization efforts] and if we’re not vigilant we can lose ground. And as long as I’m supervisor I will not let that happen,” he said.

Code violation fines are taken in stride by slumlords as simply the cost of doing business — and this could be a lucrative business, as they often collect multiple checks from individuals or families living in one- or two-family homes. Landlords can make much more money by charging five unrelated individuals rent than they can get from a family of five, never mind the cars that end up packing the driveways and spilling into streets.

These are quality-of-life issues that impact neighbors and neighborhoods, raising safety concerns and diminishing property values. Even with occasional violation fees, cost-benefit analyses find more money is to be made by packing these houses with unrelated tenants.

But often, these occupants run extension cords from room to room and use electric heaters — even ovens or barbecues — for warmth, while landlords ignore or neglect routine repairs and maintenance, such as making sure smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are operable.

These are conditions that create not only neighborhood eyesores but safety hazards for the adults and children who live there.

Issuing code violations, search warrants and press releases and filing civil suits are just some tools that can make these landlords more accountable. Meanwhile, people who suspect a home is overcrowded should be relentless in calling officials with complaints that can lead to such actions.