June 21, 2006
McGintee Vows Zero Tolerance
It's all about personal greed, according to East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill McGintee. Landlords running illegal boarding houses cram tenants in, creating fire and public safety hazards, imperiling the water quality, and trashing the quiet of residential neighborhoods, all for money — and lots of it. At one of a half dozen houses cited for zoning code violations during a six-week crackdown, officials revealed last week, landlords collected $400 a month each from as many as a dozen tenants.
Now, they've got some explaining to do — not just to the town, but to the IRS as well. Turning housing code violators over to the Internal Revenue Service for investigation is just one weapon in McGintee's battle against illegally overcrowded houses. And, like a similar threat that brought day laborers' morning muster at the East Hampton Village railroad station to a screeching halt last winter, this is the one that may ultimately prove a deterrent.
Otherwise, the consequences of running an illegal boarding house —fines and enduring impromptu inspections — may not be enough. By law, fines the town can levy could be construed as little more than the cost of doing business for landlords making over $5000 a month.
Two of the six houses targeted in the sweep prove the point. One, located at 80 Crystal Drive, has been in town justice court repeatedly over the last five or more years. First it was the notorious "volleyball house," hosting tournaments that drew crowds throughout every weekend. The town shut the illegal use down. Next, officials reported last week, the owner of the house ran a food service business out of a shed. The town shut that down as well. Now, the house is among those cited for illegal occupancy.
Officials say there were a total of 10 people living in the house. Four bedrooms were allegedly rented where the town code allows only two. Three men were living in two basement bedrooms, where an illegal kitchen had been installed, according to the supervisor. Worst of all, he said, the owner's 14-year old daughter was sleeping in a converted closet. She kept a knife in her room, for protection against the men, police said. The owners of the house were given a total of 35 state and local violations. The tenants received violations as well. And, as in the case of a house at 62 Clinton Street where a young child lived with parents in an allegedly illegal apartment, town officials contacted Child Protective Services to report the endangering of a child. The owner of that house was charged with 25 violations.
On Friday police showed The Independent numerous pictures taken at the suspected illegal homes. While extra appliances and exposed wiring were evident, for the most part the homes lacked some of the horrifying components of earlier cases. There were no grimy beds lined up in a basement, with tenants using a trashcan for a toilet, as has been found in the past.
Still, police did find someone neighbors would have been shocked to learn was living among them. Cooperating with officials from Immigration Customs Enforcement, police tracked a man who had fled scheduled deportment. He was a convicted sex offender on the lam and living at 77 Copeces Lane. Pursuit of the fugitive brought cops to the house where multiple zoning and building code violations were noted. From there, town officials were able to obtain a search warrant for the premises. In the case of the 62 Clinton Street house, a criminal investigation into a stolen car also led the law to the abode.
Also on Clinton Street, at number 63, officials targeted another repeat housing code offender. The owners are not in residence, and as of Friday had yet to be given citations. The house has two kitchens, a coin-operated washer and dryer, and four satellite dishes. A house manager was in charge of maintenance and collecting rent from seven men and a family living there. They paid between $400 and $600 per month, officials say.
The owner of a house at 2 Amagansett Drive East allegedly rented six bedrooms, for between $500 and $700 a month. Each bedroom, only three of which were legal bedrooms, was fitted with a key lock, indicative of a boarding house situation. The owner and tenants all received summons.
Finally, 423 Springs Fireplace Road saw the greatest amount of tenants in the least amount of space. A two-bedroom house hosted 13 men, officials said. According to Chief of the Town's Ordinance Enforcement Department Dominic Schirrippa, the living room and den were converted to bedrooms to create a dormitory-like setting.
For two and a half years, McGintee said, the town has taken a position that voluntary compliance, not punishment, was the first thing sought from housing code violators. The goal was to educate people about "things necessary to be a good neighbor," he said. But, it's become apparent education and voluntary compliance are not enough, the supervisor said.
Seven weeks ago, McGintee convened a task force comprised of reps from the police, building, town attorney's, harbormaster, fire marshal, and code enforcement departments. In the ensuing six weeks officials executed a warrant a week. "This is, in my opinion, just the tip of the iceberg," McGintee allowed. "We have over 100 housing cases that are still open."
Tough talk notwithstanding, the town will still seek compliance first, according to town prosecutor Tiffany Scarlato. Already some of the suspects have begun moving people out of the houses, and the town has offered the services of its Human Services Department in relocating tenants.
Speaking to the issue of recidivism, Scarlato noted that the town can make unscheduled inspections of a home part of the final adjudication of the case, in addition to fines. Trouble is there has to be a timeline after which inspections cease. In the case of one home, after the designated timeframe expired, the landlords started the illegal rentals again.
Beyond contacting the IRS, McGintee noted that he will also forward addresses to the town assessor for potential reassessment as a multifamily home. Two new code enforcement officers will be added to the department. They'll be dedicated full time to housing investigations. Soon, McGintee said, the town will debut an overcrowded housing telephone hotline. And the last weapon in the arsenal? The supervisor said the Task Force will continue to operate. "The message is no excuses and no more tolerance," he said.