Critics urge city council to drop proposed rental code changes


More than 30 people spoke at a public hearing Tuesday night on proposed changes to the Riverhead Town rental code, and nearly all of them urged city council to drop the proposal, saying it violated property laws. civil rights.

The most controversial section of the proposed code amendment states: “It will be illegal for any landlord, person or tenant to occupy or permit occupancy of rental accommodation in the Town of Riverhead that does not comply to the definition of this chapter of the family or a functional equivalent thereof.

Deputy City Attorney Erik Howard said that “compared to surrounding towns, our definition of family is much looser than, say, Brookhaven or Southampton, according to state-issued case law.” .

The proposal states that “in order to determine whether individuals live together as the functional equivalent of a traditional family”, a number of criteria must be met, including that they “resemble a traditional family unit, that they share a common family unit. single-family or single-family dwelling unit. and living and cooking together as one unit of housekeeping, sharing expenses ”and several other criteria.

Minerva Perez, executive director of the Eastern Long Island OLA, asked why the proposal was being made now, amid a pandemic and with a ban on rental evictions about to end.

“I wonder why a government agency would take the risk of striking at the heart of its community when it is the weakest,” she said. “Right now, we are in the midst of an ongoing pandemic and we are on the eve of the end of a moratorium on evictions that will trigger a flood of evictions like you’ve never seen before. ”

“These code provisions could have unintended consequences that would negatively affect members of various protected classes,” said Marlo Paventi Dilts of the Long Island Board of Realtors. “Labeling a family as traditional leaves room for abuse, exclusion and discrimination in the rental and purchase process, a problem that still exists here on Long Island and must end.”

Sister Margaret Smyth, director of the Spanish North Fork apostolate, said Riverhead is losing its base of low-paid workers and its people are moving to nearby hamlets like Mastic, Shirley or Port Jefferson.

People call her every day to look for workers, but she says she doesn’t know any because they don’t live here.

“We live in a town where our bagel stores cannot take phone orders on Saturday mornings because they are understaffed,” said Cindy Clifford, chair of the Riverhead Town Anti-Bias Task Force. She said the sharp rise in housing costs had kicked out the young residents.

“We are very concerned that this disturbing code revision will further affect the ability of anyone just starting out or living on limited income to be able to choose or continue to live in Riverhead,” she said.

The proposed code would distinguish the “economically disadvantaged and discriminate against anyone who is not part of a” traditional family unit “,” Clifford said.

Carolyn Peabody, member of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission, Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force and North Fork Unity Action Committee and Clinical Professor at the Stony Brook School of Social Welfare, urged the board to reject the proposal.

She said there are already laws to limit the number of people who can live in houses. The proposed change, she said, “will contribute to the likelihood of large-scale discrimination.”

Ms Peabody added: “If you look at the rental market now and for a while and possibly in the future, it is mind boggling that you are trying to make it harder for people to find housing.

Pilar Moya-Mancera of Greenlawn-based Housing Help Inc. said many people living with non-blood relatives do it because they need it, not because it is what they want. .

“These families cannot afford to rent on their own, due to insufficient income and the extremely high cost of living on Long Island,” she said.

Ellen Hoil from Riverhead spoke about the effects on the LGBTQ community.

“I am a member of a community,” she says. “This community is the LGBTQ community. We have a long history of not fitting into traditional families because we weren’t allowed to. It is very expensive for us to have spent our life creating our families. And you don’t take them off.

The city also received a letter signed by 26 organizations urging the council to reject the proposed changes to rental housing.

“The proposed definition of a ‘traditional family’ likely flies in the face of long-standing judicial precedent and statutory definitions and protections of human and civil rights,” they wrote, saying they felt the change would violate. Federal Fair Housing Act, as well as state and county human rights laws.

City Councilor Catherine Kent said she believed the legislation was discriminatory, but noted the city needed to tackle unsafe housing.

City Councilor Tim Hubbard said his concern was for the safety of children.

“We have seen appalling conditions, with people living in houses with extension cords everywhere, fire hazards, entrapment hazards,” he said. “This is the purpose of this initiative. It’s not about picking on a person because of their skin color, ethnicity, or whatever.

City Councilor Ken Rothwell said there had been an incident in New York where two firefighters died when they entered a structure and an illegal bulkhead was placed across a room and firefighters moved in. found trapped.

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar responded to comments that the proposal was racist by pointing out that she was Latina herself and spoke only Spanish when she entered school.

“Racism is the last thing I am,” she said.

City Council will accept written comments on the proposal until Friday, August 27.

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