January 05, 2011
Quigley Defends Accessory Apartments 'Idea'
By Rick Murphy
East Hampton Town Councilwoman Theresa Quigley said this week there is no resolution or plan to create accessory apartments in town – it is only an "idea." Regardless, the very notion has created a firestorm of controversy, and opposition is growing.
The town has long focused on protecting the environment, but Quigley points put, "The downside is we are lacking adequate affordable housing options. We've been struggling with this for years."
The current economic environment has exacerbated the housing problem, Quigley said. "We're losing our town, our senior citizens, our middle class," she said. "We need places to live. We have to provide options and allow extra income."
Quigley said attacks from former Town Councilwoman Debra Foster are way off base. Foster contends in letters and her e-mail blasts, that "five unrelated tenants would be allowed in 750-1000 square foot apartments" and that "landlords in violation of current regulations would get amnesty and get rewarded by being allowed nine renters . . ."
"I don't know how she got nine," Quigley responded. "She's blowing things up, politicizing and sensationalizing them."
Quigley said the idea is at an early stage, and open for discussion. "I don't pretend to have all the answers. The issue is complicated, it's overwhelming. I welcome a discussion, but not all the political crap."
But East Hampton Town Councilwoman Julia Prince said the lack of details concerns her. "She hasn't given me anything," referring to the lack of a written proposal. Prince said the potential for additional inhabitants of as many as nine was bandied about in conversation with Quigley. "Where are we going to put all these additional cars, especially in Springs? We already have 10 cars parked on lawns in some yards."
Jeanne Frankl, the town Democratic Party chair, said there is already an accessory apartment law on the books. "We are concerned about affordable housing, and the current law requires that they must be affordable." Frankl said she would be "shocked" if the board passed legislation without a cap on the rental charges. "That would change the whole nature of the town. It would allow landlords to exploit it for very substantial gains."
Prince wondered if Quigley was aware of the law already on the books when she came up with her plan. Frankl said the current law was well thought out, but probably not publicized properly. Only six homeowners have availed themselves of the legislation, which places a cap on the rent allowed to be charged and also mandates the owner of the house live on-premises.
Springs, everyone acknowledges, has borne the brunt of illegal apartments; the school is overcrowded, and property owners over-taxed. "I recognize the problems in Springs," Quigley said. "I'm not trying to exacerbate them. We need to recognize all the illegal units, assure they are safe, and assure they are properly taxed."
Quigley believes the added apartments will provide a stream of revenue for the town. But Prince said, "It all equals higher density, and in the long run the town will get smashed with taxes" because of the increased toll on the infra-structure. The impact accessory apartments will have on our school districts is huge, Prince said. "I spoke to the assessors. The average increase in taxes for a property that adds an apartment will be about $800. It costs $26,000 a year per student. What if every renter has one or two children? You can't recoup the expense. That's a joke."
The problem, critics contend, is there is no impetus for illegal landlords to come forward. Their apartments are not only illegal but often substandard, meaning they would have to be brought up to code. The income is off the books, nor are there any limits to the number of tenants. So rather than rein in renegade landlords, Quigley's idea would add more apartments in town, whose occupants would tax the infrastructure of the town and add to school enrollments. "There is no moral or practical rationale," to Quigley's suggestions, Frankl said.
Quigley pointed out Democratic initiatives have upzoned many buildable parcels and placed them in types of preserved status that precludes them from ever being built on. In fact, there have been two major upzonings over the past 20 years. Along with a town policy of combining old-filed map lots, the cumulative results are there are relatively few half-acre vacant lots; many one-acre have been upzoned to two, and many two-acre lots upzoned to three. Quigley said hopefully a dialogue will allow everyone to voice their concerns. "The board had had one meeting so far tackling a complex issue. We're looking at all the other towns. The details haven't been addressed. How do we address the questions if they are not brought up to us?"
But critics worry that the current town board too often shoots from the hip, rushing through legislation without thorough input from the public.
Prince, who worked for the Code Enforcement department, said most people don't understand that many of the overcrowded houses are by and large legal. "When you go in, a lot of the rooms have dead bolts on doors, and that is illegal. But if you remove the locks you find a lot of related families sharing the house, and that is legal." There are also a large number of Section 8 housing, especially in Montauk and Springs – perhaps as many as 200 or more -- and many of the tenants may be subletting space within them. With no landlord on site, there is no way of knowing how many. Town Housing director Tom Ruhle said he did not know the number of residents living in public assistance housing.
Quigley and some Springs School officials have voiced concern that strict code enforcement would bring a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union for "Putting people out on the street." Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson has also voiced concern.
"Theresa as an attorney keeps saying we can't throw people out. But she should know we don't, and we never have," Prince countered. "All we do is continue to write charges." As for the board making decisions in a hurry, Prince said, "it makes me nervous."