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Town debates overcrowded housing; may increase fines

Overcrowded housing is the buzzphrase in Riverhead Town these days as the November elections loom for town positions, and a $100 million bond is being planned by the Riverhead School District. 

On Thursday, Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith unveiled a proposed Town Code revision that calls for fines of up $10,000 per day for every day a housing violation is uncorrected. That proposal, which will be subject to an Oct. 16 public hearing at 6:25 p.m., could also end up with property owner’s certificate of occupancy being revoked if they don’t correct code violations. 

The previous day, Ms. Jen-Smith’s Republican challenger in this fall’s elections, Yvette Aguiar, announced her own plan for addressing illegal overcrowding in Riverhead.

She issued a press release Wednesday saying she is opposed to the Riverhead School District’s proposed $100 million bond to deal with the growing enrollment. She blames Ms. Jens-Smith for “failing to address illegal overcrowded housing and the lack of code enforcement officers.”

The school district bond proposal was the topic of a Riverhead school board meeting last Tuesday, where overcrowded housing was discussed and speakers discussed the need for the town and school to work together on this issue.

Mason Haas, a town assessor, urged the school district to cooperate with the town to identify overcrowded housing. “One of the most disturbing things I’ve heard this weekend was the amount of people saying ‘I’m moving. I can’t do this. The overcrowding in the schools is killing my kids.’”

He suggested the school district beef up its efforts to verify who belongs on the district and who can legally attend the schools.

Christopher Dorr, a school board member, said the district’s responsibility is to education kids, and that code enforcement is the town’s job. In addition, school Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez said the district is doing everything in its power to determine the students in the schools live in the district. She said the district will cooperate with the town.

“I know that there has been a topic of concern in the community recently about overcrowded housing,” Ms. Jens-Smith said at Thursday’s Town Board work session. “We have been meeting to coordinate efforts to address these issues.”

She asked a number of town enforcement officials to give an update Thursday on what the town has been doing about overcrowded housing. According to town code enforcement officer Richard Downs, the town has issued about 480 code violations in town Justice Court since January, compared to about 231 the previous year.

That number includes overcrowded housing, illegal apartments and other code violations, he said.

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said she’d like to see those numbers broken down.

The number of people who can legally live in a home is determined by the number of bedrooms and the size of the bedroom, Mr. Downs said. 

The term “family” is no longer restricted to a traditional family unit under federal law, according to Town Attorney Bob Kozakiewicz. “It can be a number of unrelated people living together in one house, provided they are living as a family unit,” he said.

But Mr. Kozakiewicz said that if someone was living outside the Riverhead School District, for example, and driving their children into the district to attend school here, “that’s not right.”

For her part, Ms. Giglio said a single family home should not have three satellite dishes on the roof.

The town’s rental law requires the property owner to either have the town inspect the building for safety issues, or have the property owner submit a verified report from a professional engineer.

Councilwoman Catherine Kent, a former Riverhead teacher, said there’s a lot of concern at the school district because the schools are overcrowded. She said people have been arguing over whether the town or the school district is to blame for overcrowding.

“To me, it’s inappropriate,” she said. “We should be working side by side and supporting one another. It really hurts our community.”

She feels the town should go after the landlords of unsafe housing.

“It’s been a problem for as long as I remember,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of bad landlords who are taking advantage of people.”

“It’s gotten progressively worse in my 19 years on the job,” Mr. Downs said.

He said the town has increased patrols for code enforcement and has two officers assigned on Thursdays and Fridays. While it’s often difficult getting inside a house without a warrant, the town has gotten occupants to sign consents allowing inspectors in.

Ms. Giglio said its “very important for the school district to relate to the town when there are multiple families with multiple children at the same address.”

She said that should be enough information for the town to go to a judge and a warrant “so we can go in and see what’s happening inside the house, and then we can go and address the issues.”

She said the town needs to add more code enforcement officers and to add more vehicles for those code enforcement officers.

Ms. Jens-Smith said that is included in her 2020 tentative budget, which will be released Monday.

Caption: Ms. Aguiar at Tuesday’s Riverhead Board of Education meeting. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)

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