Gurney's Inn
August 02, 2006

Illegal Housing Enforcement McGintee Sez: We're Not Letting Up

After all these years of starts and stops, it appears East Hampton Town officials have found a formula that's working.

This spring Supervisor Bill McGintee convened a task force to focus on illegal and overcrowded houses. Announcing the results of the initiative earlier this summer, McGintee evinced a new "Zero Tolerance" approach to housing code violations.

Last week, during a Democratic Committee public forum, McGintee reported the latest wave of housing enforcement efforts. According to Dominic Schirrippa, head of the town's ordinance enforcement department, officers investigated six suspected illegal rental homes. Of them, three were given summons for safety violations on the spot. Three more are still in the investigatory stages.

At one house, on Abraham's Path, officers found a disabled individual living in a basement among lawnmowers and gas cans. At another, on Woodbine Drive in Springs, an illegal apartment had been constructed in a basement. A refrigerator blocked the stairs into the main house. Owners of both homes were given summons. At the third, the owner was unhappy to learn of overcrowded conditions and vowed to evict the tenants, Schirrippa reported. Overall, in the last month the town has taken 15 housing cases to court.

Following his "Zero Tolerance" announcement, McGintee was accused in some quarters of targeting only Latinos with town housing raids. On Friday he pointed out that one of the newer homes cited was host to a volume of "Irish kids" here to work for the summer. Additionally, the ordinance enforcement department has recently tasked one officer full time with investigating illegal summer "groupers." The officer works late into the night on weekends, sussing out suspected share houses.

When the supervisor announced new initiatives, he said a new housing hotline may be part of the arsenal in the war against illegal housing. This week, however, he said he wasn't so sure it's needed. Since the Zero Tolerance policy was publicized in local and daily papers, the Ordinance Enforcement Department has been flooded with calls. "One man came in with a map, showing all the illegal houses in his neighborhood," Schirrippa reported.

With just six full time officers on staff, the department has 100 open cases in varying stages of investigation. Schirrippa said the list has been shared with town police, in case they are called to one of the suspect houses for a criminal complaint. Such a collaboration is what allowed ordinance enforcement to raid some of the homes targeted in the initial sweep. Police had visited the homes on criminal cases, took note of conditions and made a referral to code enforcement.

"There are only so many soldiers," McGintee pointed out. Putting a hotline in place now might merely frustrate citizens who make a call, then have to wait for an available staff member to respond. "It's not completely off the table," the supervisor said. Once the summer is over, and the department has caught up, the idea may be revisited. The supervisor reminded that while illegal housing is a priority, ordinance enforcement officers also investigate myriad other violations of the town code, from illegal dumpsters, to noise complaints, to making sure contractors operating in town have the proper licenses.

As he begins the next budget cycle, McGintee also promised to take a look at hiring two more officers for the department. The task force, he reported, is on break for the month of August, its participants occupied with the hectic business "the season" entails. It will reconvene in September the supervisor promised, concluding, "This problem is not going to go away unless we attack it."

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