NASSAU COUNTY CIVIC ASSOCIATION, INC.
"The government is us, we are the government, you and I." Teddy Roosevelt
Return to Guest Op/Ed
January 28, 2005
The Illegal Apartment Dilemma: Myth Versus Reality
The Community Alliance
With dramatic increases in fines and penalties in the offing, a commitment by the District Attorney to commence criminal proceedings against homeowners who act as illegal landlords, the reclassification of single family houses harboring illegal apartments as commercial properties, and pending State legislation which would hold those who maintain illegal accessory apartments in single family homes accountable to both the tenant and the community, a closer examination of the issue is in order.
Indeed, as the Town tweaks the law and residents demand stepped up enforcement against errant homeowners, the time has come to expose and dispel the myths surrounding illegal apartments.
MYTH: To enforce the laws regulating illegal rental apartments hurts the “little old lady” who rents an apartment within her home to make ends meet.
REALITY: The “little old lady” (62 and over) may lawfully rent an accessory apartment in her home (other than a cellar apartment which, within the Town of Hempstead, is always illegal) by simply applying for and securing an appropriate permit from the Town. The law does not prohibit the maintenance of accessory apartments either by seniors or in instances of so-called “Mother-Daughter” apartments.
MYTH: By enforcing the laws regulating accessory apartments, tenants will be forced out into the street, increasing the problem of homelessness and accentuating the lack of affordable housing on Long Island.
REALITY: As has been the policy of The Community Alliance, as well as responsible proponents of affordable housing, the issue of illegal rental apartments cannot be viewed or addressed in a vacuum. Indeed, it is self-defeating to seek solutions to the illegal rental problem without concomitant action on the affordable housing front.
In fact, if legislation, as considered last session in the NYS Assembly without passage, is passed and enacted, the homeowner/landlord would be held responsible for relocating the dispossessed tenant, and for all corresponding costs.
While itself a deterrent to the maintenance of illegal apartments in single family houses, even such legislation begs the question, “Where will those who occupy illegal apartments go?” The answer lies in the concerted and combined efforts of government and the private sector to create the affordable housing stock that has long been the subject of symposia, conferences and Charrettes. In short, the time has come for state, county and local government, responsible for the good and welfare of its citizens, the private sector, which draws its profits from the community, and affordable housing advocates (through their philanthropic and funding sources), to put their money where the house is - - or, better put, where those affordable houses should be!
MYTH: Accessory apartments, whether legal or not, actually increase the value of single family houses in the neighborhood.
REALITY: While a single family house with an accessory apartment may be more appealing to a prospective owner, increasing the market value, such an increase is artificial where the maintenance of such an apartment violates Town Code or State Law. Indeed, rather than to increase the resale value of surrounding single family houses (those in compliance with the law), houses without secondary apartments will only increase in APPRAISED value, not actual market value. Result – increased property taxes and a DECREASE in the marketability and desirability of the property.
MYTH: Illegal accessory apartments are a fact of life in today’s suburbia. Besides, they portend, at best, a “victimless” crime. We would be wise to legalize illegal apartments.
REALITY: The encroachment of urban development into our suburban lifestyle is indeed pervasive. Congestion, pollution, graffiti, noise, crime, commercial sprawl and other indicia of “city life” have all spread into the once pristine suburbs. This does not mean that we should condone the negatives of the megalopolis, or that we must accept the downside of living in close proximity to a major urban center.
While the urbanization of suburbia is inevitable to some extent – meaning increased density, for one thing – we need not relinquish the American Dream in favor of the nightmare of every urban ill. Why, even the City of New York finds itself engaged in a battle to eradicate illegal rentals while providing adequate affordable housing, knowing full well that the life and livelihood of the world’s greatest city is dependent on winning this war.
To say that there are no victims in the illegal apartment scenario is fool-hearty and naïve. Every homeowner and taxpayer is a victim. Consider the increased burden upon essential services – police, fire, sanitation, libraries and schools. Then, add up the tax burden each homeowner must bear to carry the illegal tenant – the so-called “innocent” who pays not a single penny toward those services which are the hallmark of suburban quality of life.
The numbers tabulate into millions of dollars per year, translating into thousands of dollars per homeowner/taxpayer. Dollars alone, however, are not the only cost!
Consider, too – and not in the least – the plight of the tenant, without recourse to the courts and often the most vulnerable victim of illegal housing. It has become commonplace to read headlines and hear alarming news reports of tenants living in cellar or basement apartments who become the victims of fires, carbon monoxide poisoning, and the squalor of overcrowded and oft times life-threatening conditions. How many men, women and children must succumb to neglect by the callous homeowner/landlord and a complacent populace before we recognize them as “victims” of a heinous and completely rectifiable crime of society?
MYTH: Statutes regulating accessory apartments, and efforts to enforce such regulations, are discriminatory in nature as they target predominantly minority populations.
REALITY: Every statute and Ordinance on the books utilized by local enforcement agencies to “target” illegal rental apartments proscribes conduct on the part of the HOMEOWNER/LANDLORD, not the tenant. In fact, it is the homeowner/landlord, representing a predominantly non-minority population, who preys upon the under-represented minority tenant by letting substandard housing that is often below Code, unsafe and, in the case of cellar/basement apartments, uninhabitable and a threat to human life.
MYTH: Civic Associations and community organizations should not take a stand on the illegal accessory apartment issue. It is too political, and best left for our representatives in government to work out.
REALITY: The illegal rental crisis is exactly the kind of issue that must be taken up by civic and community groups, for so many of the ills faced by village and hamlet alike stem from this scourge. From the threat to life and limb of the occupants of such apartments to the cars on our roadways that impede the progress of the snow plow, illegal rentals impact upon every aspect of our lives and on every resident of our Town and County.
Civic Associations, Chambers of Commerce, Parent-Teacher organizations, Kiwanis Clubs are among the penultimate advocates of community, and the progenitors of beneficial change. After all, we do not need community groups to maintain the status quo. The status quo does very well maintaining itself! To be the true ambassadors of the best our communities have to offer, our civic groups must resist the temptation to be but potted plants along the byways of our Town and County. They must rise up, even in the face of vociferous, if not vacuous, opposition, meeting the challenges of an ever-changing suburban backdrop.
As leaders of community, as taxpayers asked to bear the burden, as the trustees of suburbia, we must take up the causes of community, lest the promise of our once cherished lifestyle be forever lost. We cannot – we must not – leave significant matters such as illegal rentals and affordable housing to future generations. These are the concerns we must take in hand and bring to a head today. This is the promise of community we must keep to our children and to everyone who values the suburban way of life. The time to educate, to advocate and to motivate is now!
The Community Alliance (www.thecommunityalliance.org) is an umbrella organization comprised of civic and community groups throughout the Town of Hempstead whose objective is to promote and enhance the quality of life of every Long Islander. Contact The Community Alliance at firstname.lastname@example.org.