June 14, 2006

Much Ado About Housing

East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill McGintee was exasperated. "I'm getting sick and tired of people using the term racism," he said. "Everybody likes to throw these terms around to advance a particular cause they want to advance."

The supervisor reacted to two articles in last week's editions of Newsday that implied town officials are looking to preclude undocumented Latino immigrants from participation in its affordable housing program.

It appears the articles were prompted by complaints from Amado Ortiz, the chair of the town's Community Housing Opportunity Fund Advisory Board. In an email message forwarded by local activist Isabel Sepulveda obtained by The Independent, Ortiz decries a requirement that candidates for affordable accessory apartments provide identification in the form of passports or visas as part of proving eligibility for the housing program. He characterizes the requirement as "clearly intended to send a racist message, directed at Latinos, ostensibly to prevent 'illegals' from living in accessory apartments," and calls upon Latinos in the community to rebut "this clearly racist nonsense."

Ortiz this week emphasized that the message was a strictly personal com-muniqué. In fact he said Monday that when he finds out who distributed the message he plans to consult his attorney.

Although Ortiz was unhappy that the message was distributed and ultimately prompted the Newsday stories, he stood firm in opposition to language in the draft code amendment he feels puts an emphasis on particular forms of identification. It taints members of the legal Hispanic community with the illegal brush, he said. Code references to eligibility requirements for other types of housing don't make mention of the same criteria.

Parameters and rules regarding presenting identification in order to qualify for housing have always been in place, both the supervisor and town housing director Tom Ruhle emphasized. "You'd think they'd know that," McGintee said, referring to the critics, many of whom have spent years in the world of affordable housing advocacy. Ortiz said he does indeed know it. However, he likened his support of language that doesn't result in eligibility profiling to gender sensitive language now used in government documents.

"If you come into my office I ask for photo ID," Ruhle affirmed, characterizing the accusations of racism as "much ado about nothing."

The town is contemplating legalizing apartments in single-family homes, Ruhle reminded, "that's the big deal." Moving to the substance of the proposals on the table, Ruhle explained that the town board has begun debate on revisions to the town zoning code relating to accessory apartments in single-family homes.

Currently, the town code does speak to the creation of accessory apartments in residences but over the years applicants have complained that the requirements for creation of the living spaces are so onerous, no one can meet them.

Under the proposal, the town would require that the home is owner-occupied, with the homeowner living in either the apartment or the accessory dwelling. The owner of the residence must be a year-round resident and offer living space at affordable prices.

The proposal restricts how many people can inhabit the apartments, and what size they may be. The character of a single-family residence must be maintained. Annual inspections will be conducted and the law provides for periodic inspections as well. The apartments wouldn't be permitted in environmentally sensitive areas such as the Harbor Protection Overlay District.

On Monday, McGintee predicted several more work sessions to discuss particulars of the law. Among items still to be decided are whether the tenant's income will be checked or a ceiling set, how many apartments will be permitted and whether they'll be limited according to school district.

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