Gurney's Inn
November 18, 2015

Rental Registry Won't Help Stop Overcrowded Houses

Bad news for supporters of East Hampton town's proposed rental registry. If they think a law requiring landlords to register their houses will quickly curtail the abundance of illegally overcrowded or excessively turned over rentals, they think wrong.

If opponents think the registry gives enforcers carte blanche to get all up in their business, and home, they think wrong, too.

This week The Independent spoke with town public safety director David Betts, who presides over the ordinance enforcement department, about the controversial law slated to be the subject of a public hearing tomorrow night. (Town officials expect such a huge turnout, they've changed venues for the hearing to a larger space at the American Legion.)

In recent weeks, ordinance enforcement has issued press releases lauding two enforcement actions – one involves an overcrowded house and one involves what's know as excessive turnover (repeatedly renting a home for short periods of time).

For years, town officials have reasoned that East Hampton's lack of a rental registry makes it hard for code enforcers to crack down on those two types of violations of the town code. Yet, with those two press releases, the town itself heralded two actions undertaken to address the violations without the rental law in place.

Makes No Difference

In those two cases, what difference would the registry have made?

Basically, none, according to Betts.

How will the rental registry facilitate investigations into overcrowding or excessive turnover?

It won't, according to Betts.

Won't it make it easier for investigators to gain entry into a suspected overcrowded house?

That's a negatory, good bubbies.

Enforcers still won't be able to gain access to a home without the owner or occupant's permission or a search warrant.

Although he noted several times during the conversation that he had yet to review the most recent iteration of the law, Betts explained how the registry would assist his department.

Say five different people call in complaints about illegally-rented houses in their neighborhoods. With a registry in place, staff can check the registry to see if the houses are in the database. If they are, case closed.

If they aren't, enforcers can go to the front door and ask whoever answers the door if the house is rented. If the door-answerer says yes, the landlord and tenant both may receive a violation for failing to register. Period. Nobody gets inside without permission or a search warrant.

If the officer approaching the house sees what's called presumptive evidence -- separate electric meters or mail boxes, several satellite dishes on the roof, more than the permitted four cars in the driveway, any indicator of an illegally over-occupied house -- the full scale investigation commences, the same way it would proceed without a rental registry.

Still Have To Investigate

In the case of excessive turnover, officers still need to go to the house repeatedly to prove it's being rented more than three times within six months.

In the case of over-occupied homes, "We still have to establish other elements to make a case," Betts said.

Beyond weeding out unfounded complaints, the registry offers one other form of assistance to enforcers. It can be an "add on" charge to landlords and tenants in suspected overcrowded or over-rented houses.

Compare it to a motorist pulled over for DWI and leaving the scene of an accident. A rental registry charge can be likened to also getting a ticket for a broken taillight after the DWI and leaving the scene arrest.

Far less intrusive than earlier iterations of the law – some called for inspections by town officials, while one version proposed about a decade ago, would have required landlords and tenants to disclose how much the rent was and how much the tenant made (as a nod toward providing affordable housing) -- the draft proposal implements an honor system for landlords. They have to affirm via notarized affidavit that the house meets some 22 aspects of the code as they pertain to safety.

Asked how code enforcement will check to see if rental registrants actually have installed or maintained the 22 items, Betts had no answer other than to express the hope that people are honest on the form. Who doesn't want to have the required number of smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors, he wondered.

Betts was at the helm of the code enforcement department in Southampton Town when it imposed its much-maligned rental law. Officials in Southampton have called it a failure – so much so, Supervisor-elect Jay Schneiderman has added it to his list of aspects of the town code that need an overhaul.

Asked if Southampton's rental law made a difference, if it was any help, Betts deflected. "It's a different kind of code there. It's a different set up," he said, without articulating the difference.

Dueling Petitions

The public hearing tomorrow night begins at 6:30 PM. So far, an online petition urging the town board to stop the registry has garnered 1012 supporters.

Additional criticism of the proposal includes the complaint that the added layer of bureaucracy will discourage people who have been renting their homes to make ends meet from continuing a local tradition.

It flies in the face of supposed interest in providing affordable housing, others say, as the proposed registry fee will likely be passed on to tenants. No provision is made for long term renters, meaning they will have to come up with the fee every two years. If a family's circumstances change, say a spouse dies or a new baby is born, the registry will have to be changed to reflect the new number of people in a household, and another fee forked over.

"Is this a fundraiser for the town or meant to actually do something," one critic queried. The already-overburdened building department has been tabbed to administer the registry.

Both tenants and landlords may be subject to summonses and fines. Homeowners who inadvertently rent to bad tenants could be fined and visitors who unwittingly are the fourth short–term renters in a house suspected of excessive turnover would also be subject to criminal charges and court proceedings.

Finally, opponents see the collection of personal information about the rental house and its tenants as invasive and potentially harmful. Information in the database could be available to anyone who asks for it through Freedom of Information Law. Asked to weigh in on this worry during candidate interviews last month, Supervisor Larry Cantwell shrugged it off. People can find personal information a variety of ways already, he pointed out.

On the other side of the argument, a petition in support of the rental registry gathered 748 signatures, both online and in hard copy as of September 8, the most recent update to the web page.

Proponents of the registry believe East Hampton needs a registry to help prevent illegal housing, ensure tenant safety, preserve water quality and the environment, the quality of life on the East End, real estate values, and the single family residential character of local hamlets.

According to Town Clerk Carole Brennan, her office hasn't received any petitions regarding the rental registry yet. Though email comments on the proposal should be sent to her for the official record, some have been sent to individual members of the town board, then forwarded to her.

So far, Brennan said she's received about a dozen emailed comments, most of them in favor of the registry.

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