Guest Column: Housing crackdown will fix overcrowding

Recently, the Riverhead school board introduced a bond referendum to borrow $100 million to construct new classrooms at the existing schools within the district. (The proposed cost has since been reduced to the $73.5 to $87.9 million range following a presentation Wednesday night). The board members argued that the schools are bursting at the seams, with an overflow of students having to sit in cramped classrooms. This overcrowding crisis is having an impact on the quality of education and our children’s ability to learn and is burdening our teachers’ ability to effectively teach.

This amount (plus interest) will unfairly burden Riverhead taxpayers for years to come. While I agree this problem must be addressed, I do not agree that bonding out money for new classrooms is the answer without first addressing the root of the problem: illegal overcrowding of homes within the Town of Riverhead. I have recently attended the last few school board meetings to understand the issues firsthand (my opponent, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen).

When you have illegal overcrowding — combined with lack of code enforcement — you have people living in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. Illegal overcrowding not only affects the people living in the house, it also affects the people who live near them.

Overcrowded housing is more than just a quality-of-life issue. It impacts home values and property taxes. Those who rent out rooms or houses to excessive renters collect the money and it goes into their pockets; none of it goes to paying school taxes. The renters, likewise, contribute nothing to our tax base. Meanwhile, the homeowners who work hard to maintain their properties, follow the rule of law and pay their taxes on time are the ones getting stuck with the tab.

Imagine trying to sell your home. If a probable buyer saw your next-door neighbor’s house with trash in the yard, cars parked on the lawn and satellite dishes sticking out from the side of the house, do you think they would want to live there? I think the answer is obvious.

The reason this problem exists is that our current supervisor, Laura Jens-Smith, has not addressed this issue. Riverhead only has three full-time and one part-time code enforcement officers. Our neighboring town, Southampton, which is smaller in size, has six code enforcement officers. Furthermore, Ms. Jens-Smith has not initiated one Supreme Court action against these slumlords. It’s evident that she is not making this quality-of-life issue a priority.

I have developed a 10-point strategic plan to address this vital quality-of-life issue, including creating a proactive task force to help identify and prosecute quality-of-life violations. This will be accomplished by using state-of-the-art technology and intelligence gathering to document those homes with an excessive overflow of tenants. Once we determine the offender’s home, we will take legal action against the landlords and homeowners who facilitate illegal overcrowding.

Rather than place Riverhead taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars for new schools, the Riverhead Central School District should work with the town in easing overcrowding in schools. Collaboration is currently a practice in both the Southampton and Quogue school districts, which require the students’ parents to sign a residency affidavit verifying legal occupancy in Southampton Township. This approach has resulted in stable enrollment in various school districts throughout Long Island. This type of effort is sorely lacking here in Riverhead. I will also work with Southampton officials to ensure the town code is enforced in Flanders, since it impacts Riverhead schools.

In addition to commencing Supreme Court actions against unethical landlords, we will impose fines for each violation. Initial infractions will start at $5,000 each; for each subsequent violation, the amount will increase. It is only right that these people pay for these quality-of-life violations.

Spending money will not solve the school overcrowding issue; code enforcement will! These ordinances were created to protect our most vulnerable residents who reside in substandard, unsafe and unhealthy housing conditions. They also help the school district alleviate the hemorrhaging enrollment that impacts the quality of education our children receive. Consequently, we need to enforce our code ordinances to provide relief to our taxpayers.

Ms. Aguiar is the Republican-Conservative candidate for Riverhead town supervisor.