Photo: Adobe Stock

Riverhead Town’s proposed rental code revisions has drawn opposition from housing and civil rights advocates, who argue that the proposal is discriminatory and violates county, state and federal law.

A group of more than two dozen organizations wrote to the town board yesterday objecting to the proposed code amendment, which is scheduled for a public hearing tonight.

“The proposed changes include restrictive, intrusive and offensive definitions of who qualifies to live in the town,” according to the letter, signed by Long Island Housing Services, the New York Civil Liberties Union/Suffolk County Chapter, ERASE Racism, OLA of Eastern Long Island, the Brookhaven Town NAACP, the Long Island Progressive Coalition and others.

“The proposed definition of a ‘traditional family’ likely runs afoul of long-standing court precedent and the State Human and Civil Rights statutory definitions and protections,” the groups wrote.

“It is also our opinion that the changes would violate the federal Fair Housing Act, along with New York State and Suffolk County Human Rights law, and would prevent landlords from renting to any tenant without asking questions that violate those laws,” the letter said.

According to town officials, the proposed code revision aims to address overcrowded and substandard rental housing in Riverhead. It does to by limiting the lawful occupancy of rental housing to a family or a group of people who are the “functional equivalent” of a family.

The proposal sets forth four criteria for determining whether a group is the “functional equivalent” of a family, including a requirement that all persons share the entire dwelling and live and cook together as a single housekeeping unit. It effectively bans “separate roomers.” One criteria requires the occupancy of a dwelling to be “permanent and stable” and lists five specific attributes that are considered presumptive evidence of permanence and stability.

The language of the proposed code violates fair housing laws, including the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, said Ian Wilder, an attorney and executive director of Long Island Housing Services.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968, the third major civil rights law enacted in the 1960s, prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status and disability.

“The definition of family [in the proposed code] does nothing but invite discrimination,” Wilder said in a phone interview yesterday.

“We want people to live in safe places but also have their rights protected,” Wilder said. “We believe in inspections and have no problem with increasing fines,” he said. “The definition of who can live in a home, rather than how many and how the property can be divided up, is what’s discriminatory,” he said.

“It puts landlords in the position of having to ask questions that might violate the Fair Housing Act,” he said. It puts real estate agents in a similar predicament, he said.

It also puts the town’s HUD funding in jeopardy, Wilder said.

“Fair housing law requires them, first, to not discriminate. And it also requires them to remove things that result in discrimination,” he said. “The town signs a certification every year. They’re on the hook.”

Wilder, who is also a Riverhead resident, said he doesn’t believe the town has thought through the problems they will create with this code.

“This creates problems for foster parents. It may also violate the state’s ‘source of income’ law by requiring employment ‘in the area.’ What is that? They’re judging where people work. This could create problems for employers, including farmers, if landlords become skittish,” said Wilder. “I think they’re going to hear objections from a lot of people they didn’t expect to object.”

The code is also destined to be shot down by a court, said Wilder, an attorney. When a law infringes on people’s rights, the courts require the law to be narrowly tailored to solve the problem they claim they are trying to solve, he said. “This is nowhere near complying with that test,” he said. “The legal basis for the law is health and safety. Identifying who lives there doesn’t benefit health and safety.”

The town board has scheduled a public hearing on the proposal tonight at 6:05 p.m. at Riverhead Town Hall, 200 Howell Avenue. (Public hearing comments may also be made via Zoom at this link or by telephone 1-929-2056099; Meeting ID: 816 4231 0266 Passcode: 694193)

OLA of Eastern Long Island, a group that advocates for Latino immigrants on the East End, is organizing opposition to the code change in the local community.

“It’s our concern that this zoning decree unfairly discriminates against residents of the city who are low-income, immigrants and/ or people of color,” OLA of Eastern Long Island posted on its Facebook page. “The decree is aimed at people who have economic needs and must live with housemates in order to pay for a place to live.”

Riverhead Town officials have been working to amend the town’s housing code to hold accountable landlords who maintain substandard and overcrowded housing. The town has also struggled in its efforts to enforce the existing code. The adequacy of the housing code and its enforcement became a central issue in the 2019 local election after debate raged over a proposed school construction bond, with some residents complaining that illegal and overcrowded rental housing in Riverhead resulted in overcrowded classrooms.

The town board held a public hearing on a prior housing code amendment proposal in October 2019. The prior proposal, advanced by then-Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith, would have adopted by reference the standards of the state property maintenance code and would have substantially increased fines for violations. The public hearing was held on the last town board meeting before the 2019 election, when Jens-Smith lost her re-election bid to the current supervisor. That proposal was rejected by the town board in a 2-1 vote on the day after the 2019 election.

The survival of local journalism depends on your support.
We are a small family-owned operation. You rely on us to stay informed, and we depend on you to make our work possible. Just a few dollars can help us continue to bring this important service to our community.
Support RiverheadLOCAL today.