Complaints up in file-heavy code enforcement office

Code enforcement officer Richard Downs goes through some of the files stored in metal cabinets inside the department's office. (Credit: Paul Squire)
Code enforcement officer Richard Downs goes through some of the files stored in metal cabinets inside the department’s office. (Credit: Paul Squire)

Inside the metal filing cabinets stacked against the wall in Riverhead Town’s tiny code enforcement office are dozens of manila folders, each marked with a property address and filled with legal documents, site plans and notes.

The town attorney’s office is home to dozens more filing cabinets filled with cases; code enforcement doesn’t have room for them all, nor the room for the handful of new complaints that pour into the office each week. 

“Certainly we’re just as busy this year as we were last year, if not more,” said Richard Downs, Riverhead’s chief code enforcement officer. “We’re plugging away the best we can.”

After a January raid targeted an allegedly overcrowded house in Polish Town and found that 18 men were living inside the two-story building, Supervisor Sean Walter said the town would step up its efforts to combat overcrowded homes and illegal rentals.

Based on data provided by code enforcement, the town’s two officers seem to be making good on the supervisor’s word.

Through mid-September 2014, according to town data, the code enforcement office has issued 23 summonses for properties lacking rental permits, already surpassing the 15 it issued during all of 2013.

A total of 24 properties have also been put on a “watch list” this year for alleged overcrowding, though it’s unclear how many may already have received summonses. The “watch list” is used by code enforcement to focus efforts on specific problem properties.

But while summonses and investigations continue to increase, so too do complaints. So far this year, residents have filed 75 complaints with the town about illegal rentals, housing concerns and poor property maintenance — 20 more than were filed during all of last year.

Data from previous years wasn’t available due to the code enforcement department’s antiquated filing system. Those records are organized by property address, making the process of compiling comparative year-to-year data difficult and tedious.

The Town Board had considered spending about $44,000 for a new department computer system earlier this year.

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio pushed for the electronic filing software, saying it would help the town collect unpaid fees by digitizing the collections process. In May, the board passed a resolution approving a contract for the upgrade, but in August, Mr. Walter said he would not sign off on it, claiming the town doesn’t have the money. Riverhead faces a deficit of at least $500,000 at the end of this year, with another $1.6 million gap looming for 2015.

Though not all overcrowded home complaints turn out to be valid, Mr. Downs said code enforcement needs residents to notify them if they suspect violations. The small department — now consisting of just three employees, including Mr. Downs — doesn’t have the manpower to search for violators.

“Of course, if I’m out on the road and I see something, of course we’re going to stop,” Mr. Downs said.

Each property case is a web of legal requirements and confirmations — and that’s before the case even reaches a courtroom. Officers spend weeks building cases against certain problem properties before having enough evidence to obtain a search warrant.

“Some people think that we have the authority to go there with our badges and walk through the house,” Mr. Downs said. “We just can’t do that.”

Mr. Downs said that while search warrant raids against alleged violators get the most media attention, code enforcement’s main goal is to get illegal rental units and other problem properties on the books and remove residents from unsafe properties.

Instead of bursting in with a search warrant, code enforcement officers generally ask permission to look around. Most times, Mr. Downs said, the owner or tenant will let them.

Over the past three years, the department has investigated hundreds of illegal rental properties, Mr. Downs said. Most times, the property owners fill out a rental permit application to avoid lengthy court hearings and fines.

Once the property is officially listed as a rental, Mr. Downs said, code enforcement can inspect it annually. The owner must also provide the town with a floor plan of the property, which the town can then use to prepare themselves for any further legal action if the homeowner doesn’t comply with the code.

While the town’s building department will handle certain building violations, Mr. Downs and code enforcement’s ordinance inspector, Nicole Buckner, will inspect roughly 1,200 rental properties this year, about double the number that were inspected five years ago, said code compliance coordinator Linda McKay. And that’s not even counting all the other parts of the town code that the department enforces, such as violations for debris or high weeds in local yards.

“We’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got,” Mr. Downs said.