Minerva Perez, executive director of OLA of Eastern Long Island, asked why the governing body of the town would strike at the heart of its community when it was at its weakest and most vulnerable because of the pandemic. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Opponents of Riverhead’s proposed rental housing code revisions packed the Town Hall meeting room Tuesday night to voice their objections during a sometimes contentious and emotional public hearing that lasted nearly two hours.

Riverhead officials said at the outset of the hearing that the proposal would not be adopted as presented.

They rebuffed criticism that the proposal was intended to discriminate against any group of people and insisted they only sought to protect renters from predatory landlords who lease substandard and unsafe housing, and to protect the community from the impacts of that type of housing.

Town Attorney Robert Kozakiewicz and Community Development Director Dawn Thomas said they had discussed concerns about the draft with attorney Ian Wilder, executive director of Long Island Housing Services, one of 26 housing and social justice advocate groups that sent a letter of opposition to the town board on Monday.

“What we’re looking to do is make sure that people are protected from unscrupulous landlords,” Kozakiewicz said at the start of the hearing. “And if we didn’t get it right, we’re looking for your comment. There’s no attempt to discriminate against anybody,” said Kozakiewicz.

Much of the criticism turned on the inclusion of the existing town code definitions of “family” and its “functional equivalent” as part of the proposed code spelling out an offense that is subject to enforcement and fines.

Deputy Town Attorney Erik Howard, who handles the prosecution of town code violations and drafted the proposed revisions with the town board code committee, council members Tim Hubbard and Ken Rothwell, explained the contents of the bill Tuesday night. Photo: Denise Civiletti

The definitions aren’t changing, said Deputy Town Attorney Erik Howard, who handles the prosecution of town code violations and drafted the proposed revisions with the town board code committee, council members Tim Hubbard and Ken Rothwell.

They were added to the proposed new section of the rental code “in order to make it an offense that code enforcement can write, by town code violation” when the rental dwelling unit “is being used in a manner inconsistent with what it’s supposed to be, pursuant to the certificate of occupancy and or within that zoning use district,” Howard explained.

But those definitions — and the prospect of violations based on those definitions being issued by town code enforcement officers — are exactly what drew the ire of housing, social justice and civil rights groups — and of the more than two dozen speakers who turned out to protest the proposal.

“The proposed definition of traditional family will likely violate longstanding court precedent, the Fair Housing Act, New York State and Suffolk County Human Rights Law and would prevent landlords from renting to any tenant without asking questions that are really violating those laws,” said Dr. Carolyn Peabody of Southold, a member of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission.

Downtown Riverhead resident Juan Micieli-Martinez had another take. “The idea of defining a traditional family in a nontraditional world is preposterous,” Micieli-Martinez told the board.

Some critics questioned the motives behind the proposal.

“I’m struggling with the ‘why,’” said OLA of Eastern Long Island Executive Director Minerva Perez, one of the first up to the podium. “The ‘why’ right now is that the governing body would take take the risk of striking at the heart of its community when it’s at its most weak,” Perez said.

“Right now we’re in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. We are at the eve of the end of an eviction moratorium that is going to unleash a flood of evictions like we have never seen before,” she said.

“There are a number of ways that we can be addressing some of the challenges that directly relate to the health, the safety and the welfare of all of residents and all of the children and all of the most vulnerable folks here in Riverhead,” Perez said, citing community education to increase vaccination rates and to prevent evictions.

“But that’s not being done right now. I question the ‘why.’ I question why right now. It is not the right time to even be considering this right now,” Perez told the board. She said the town’s proposal is increasing instability and fear of danger in the most vulnerable people in the Riverhead community.

“This is not the time and not the place to do this right now. And I urge you and I implore you and I beg you to not pursue this type of change,” Perez said.

“Guys like me come to better themselves and better the community,” 32-year-old Ananias Canel of Flanders told the Riverhead Town Board. ” If you want to close the door, I think you’re gonna lose a lot,” Photo: Denise Civiletti

Ananias Canel of Flanders spoke of his own experience pursuing the “American Dream” by coming here from Guatemala at age 17 “to better myself.” He said he was all alone and had only a cousin to turn to for companionship and help. His cousin allowed him to share a room with him rented from a local homeowner. Earning only $9 an hour in housekeeping work, housing was otherwise out of reach, Canel said.

He attended BOCES, learned the English language, learned a trade and improved his position, he said. He was able to rent a house with seven other guys, he said. “It was a four-bedroom house and we lived two to a room. We loved each other like a family,” he said. “We were a family to each other.”

Canel acknowledged he “came here, like many people may say, illegally — And just for the record, I didn’t jump the border, I went under it. If I knew of a better way to get in, I would,” he said. “In Guatemala, you can’t even get in the [U.S.] embassy. They lock the door,” he said.

A refugee from violence, Canel was able to obtain legal status and has since gotten his green card, he said.

“I am 32 years old and I have lived almost half my life in Riverhead,” Canel said. “Now I am a homeowner I just bought my house this year,” he said to applause and cheers from the crowd.

“Guys like me come to better themselves and better the community,” Canel said. “Please do take into consideration people like me that come here, come to your town, and try to better themselves and try to better the town. If you want to close the door, I think you’re gonna lose a lot,” he said.

Ian Wilder or Riverhead, executive director of Long Island Housing Services said nontraditional housing arrangements have always been a mainstay of immigrant life in America. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Wilder, of Long Island Housing Services, agreed. “This is a working class community with a proud immigrant heritage,” he said. “And every immigrant wave that has come over has lived together in the same way. Go back and look at the Ellis Island records. No matter where they came from, whether they came from Ireland, or Germany, they’ve lived in functional equivalents, nontraditional homes. This is not something that is new,” Wilder said. “It is people being able to define who they live with, people being able to create the melting pot. And that’s a word we never talked about anymore — the melting pot that is this country, the ability to come here and grow roots. And I would like this community to keep that same heritage and the community to stay a place as a welcoming community, for people who want to come here and work people who want to immigrate here, people who eventually want to build families here.”

Ellen Hoil of Riverhead said, as a member of the LGBTQ community, she wanted to point out that the proposed code change would affect that community as well.

“We have a long history of not living within traditional families, because we weren’t allowed to,” Hoil said. “It is very onerous on us that we have spent our lives creating our families and you are now taking those away.”

The Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force submitted a statement that was read at the hearing by its chairperson Cindy Clifford.

“We believe that our town is better than this, that we are fair and caring and more interested in helping out than adding additional hardships or pushing away our residents,” the task force said in the statement. “We ask you to discard this code revision.”

A number of speakers blasted the proposed code provisions out of concern the changes would make already scarce and unaffordable rental housing even more scarce and unaffordable.

Father Gerardo Romo, a priest with the Long Island Diocese of the Episcopal Church who works with the Hispanic Ministry, said immigrant workers are the backbone of the region’s economy. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Greta Guarton of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless said the proposed changes would work against the ability of already homeless and housing-insecure households to find affordable rental housing — including people with disabilities and others in need of supportive housing, as well as people who need to live with roommates in order to afford clean, safe housing.

The head of the Family Service League said the town must find ways to ensure safe housing for residents without hurting people with disabilities, people living in poverty and other vulnerable segments of the population.

“Often, the only way marginalized individuals can survive is to cohabit a dwelling. Otherwise, they could become homeless and forced to go into a shelter- which will only cost all taxpayers more,” wrote Family Service League President and CEO Karen Boorshtein in an Aug. 17 email to the town board. Riverhead Town should not place additional barriers before them, she said.

Father Gerardo Romo, an Episcopal priest who works in the bishop’s Hispanic ministry, said the economy of the East End region depends on low-wage workers in the agriculture and tourism industries whose incomes do not allow them to afford single-family rentals on their own. “And they are the foundation of the economy of this region,” Romo said.

Sister Margaret Smyth of North Fork Spanish Apostolate said Riverhead is losing its base of essential workers to other communities because there is no truly affordable rental housing here. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Sister Margaret Smyth, a Catholic nun and longtime director of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate, based in Riverhead at St. John the Evangelist Church, said she is seeing people moving out of Riverhead to other more affordable communities every day.

At the same time, she said, every day she gets calls from people and businesses asking about affordable rental housing. But truly affordable rentals are nonexistent, she said.

“If you’ve got money, you can afford anything, but if you’re a low-income worker, there’s very little you can afford. And so, you’re doomed to have to try to scramble, to move, to do anything,” Smyth said.

Also at the same time, Smyth said, she fields calls every day from businesses looking for workers.

“We’re losing our base of low-paid workers and the economy is going to suffer,” Smyth said.

And for that reason, the proposed code changes also drew opposition from the business and agricultural community.

Farmers often need to rent houses for their workers, and some of the proposed code changes could impact farmers’ ability to house their workers, Long Island Farm Bureau director Rob Carpenter said. He asked the town board to get feedback on the proposal from its own agricultural advisory committee “before this goes any further… so that we can work through it and help the farmers to be able to provide for their workers.”

The Long Island Builders Institute had harsh words for the town’s code revision effort in a memorandum of opposition submitted Monday. The amendments proposed “impose unnecessarily discriminatory and exclusionary zoning regulations during a time where the needs of the town cry for help in creating inclusion and better affordability rates and options among Riverhead’s housing stock,” the memorandum said.

“It is undeniable that the Town of Riverhead has experienced unprecedented spikes in housing instability, fueled notably by a lack of affordable housing options to meet the current demand. It is no secret that housing affordability has steadily decreased throughout the region as wage inflation lags significantly behind housing sales/costs – this disparity will only be worsened through adoption of the drafted revisions to Chapter 263 of the Town Code,” LIBI said.

The town hall meeting room was more crowded Tuesday night than its been since the start of the pandemic. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Irma Solis, director of the Suffolk County Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union told the town board its proposed code revision is “not at all tailored in any fashion” to accomplish its “stated intent of safeguarding the health and wellbeing” of tenants.

“Rather, the proposed changes include restrictive, intrusive and offensive definitions of who qualifies to live in rental housing in the town,” Solis said.

Solis said there are already rules in place — town and state codes — that allow the town to safeguard health and safety, including “numerical occupancy limitations based on square footage and amenities of dwelling space,” she said can and should still apply to prevent overcrowding. “And other ordinances that already exists, can be used to regulate parking, noise, property, maintenance and other aspects of the dwelling that might affect the surrounding neighborhood.”

The proposed revision is “constitutionally suspect,” Solis said. Government is obligated to use a more tailored approach to address these problems, she said.

“Government should play no role in regulating household composition and people are allowed to structure their living arrangements as they see fit,” Solis said. People have “a right of intimate association” in their homes, she said.

A lawyer for OLA of Eastern Long Island said in a statement the code revision is unconstitutional because it “unfairly discriminates against Black, Hispanic, and Native American
households.”

The restrictive definition of family or functional equivalent of family will “unfairly and disproportionately harm” persons of color who have incomes disproportionately below the federal poverty level, said East Hampton attorney Jack Lester.

“Therefore, it is a zoning restriction directed against a class of individuals based upon race and ethnicity due to the economic circumstances of that class residing in Riverhead,” Lester wrote.

Those objections were echoed during the hearing by the Long Island Housing Services executive director, who said the proposed code violates the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and would put the town’s HUD funding at risk. He detailed those concern in an interview with RiverheadLOCAL Monday.

Councilwoman Catherine Kent said she is opposed to the proposed revisions because they are discriminatory. “Families come in all different configurations,” Kent said.

“Certainly we need to address the unsafe housing in our community. This is something that we all need to sit down and talk about together,” Kent said.

“I want to thank everybody that came out and spoke tonight. And I hope that the people in the community will take some time to listen to the stories, because we have to admit, there’s been a lot of division in our community over the last couple of years. And what we need to do is listen to one another. And there were some really moving stories tonight.”

Hubbard said he really doesn’t care about the code addressing whether people are families or not. The important thing, he said, is addressing safety. He said there are children living “deplorable conditions.” He cited homes where there are “extension cords running all over the place, fire hazards, entrapment hazards, padlocks on bedroom doors — that’s what this initiative is about. It’s not about picking on any one person, because of their skin color, their ethnicity, or anything else. It’s about making sure that our residents are safe,” Hubbard said.

Rothwell, who sits on the code committee with Hubbard, said the revisions first came up after two NYC firefighters were killed in the line of duty because of an illegal partition put up in an apartment. Partitions are a hazard to firefighters because they can be entrapped in a burning building, he said. The councilman, who was appointed to the town board in January to fill the vacancy created by the election of former councilwoman Jodi Giglio to the State Assembly, said he gained “great perspective during the hearing,” which he called “very educational.”

The board would go back and look at everything, he said.

Political tensions flare during hearing

Political tensions on the town board — and in the community — simmered just beneath the surface throughout the meeting and boiled over a couple of times.

At the outset of the hearing, Kent, who is running against the incumbent Supervisor Yvette Aguiar in the November election, referred to the supervisor as “my opponent” whom, she said, “ran on the issue of doing something about overcrowded rental housing and deadbeat landlords” but didn’t do anything anything about it in two years, she said. “Now with another election looming, she and her colleagues on the board have come up with a complicated proposed law to address rental housing.”

Her statement rankled Hubbard. “Catherine, the way you address it is like you’re this hero savior and you’re gonna make everything good,” Hubbard chided. “Where were you when we were doing this? When you get up here now on the pulpit and you say, oh, I don’t like this. You knew about this.”

Kent, the board’s lone Democrat, said she was on the code revision committee and was working on housing code changes. “But I was removed from the code revision committee by the supervisor because I was making progress on that,” Kent alleged. She said she voiced her objections during the work session when the proposal was brought to the bode.

Aguiar jumped into the discussion at that point. “As you all know, it is silly season here until Nov. 2 unfortunately and the taxpayers deserve better,” the supervisor said. “However, when someone intentionally puts something forward — yes, the person was removed,” Aguiar said, referring to Kent, “because there was no action done. And this individual was here all the time, and has the same legal power as every board member to do something,” she said.

“This is the person’s palm card with her picture on it and it says—“ Aguiar was momentarily drowned out by jeers and boos from the audience.

“This is a public hearing. And this is this is not set in stone. We are here to hear from the public. There will be a determination made eventually. Everyone will be heard. I’m a Hispanic myself and I understand,” she said, drawing more noise from the audience.

At the meeting’s conclusion, Aguiar expressed indignant at the implication that the town was motivated by racism in putting forward the proposed revisions and anger at a perception that one or more people had called her a racist.

“I am a Latina. When I started school, I only spoke Spanish. I know exactly what everybody’s talking about,” Aguiar said, her voice rising. “I lived that. My family was so poor, they made dresses from curtains for me to go to school,” she said.

“So the biggest racist is the people will know that somebody is a Hispanic, knows the conditions, and for their own personal agenda, turn it around and call me a racist, because that’s the last thing that I am,” Aguiar said. She did not name anyone and it was not clear whether she was talking about the comments in general that night or those of a particular speaker. None of the speakers applied that label to any individual member of the town board.

“And I lived beyond some of those stories that I heard. And I went to school, struggled because I only spoke Spanish — thank God, I had teachers who took me under their wings — the first one to graduate from high school, never thought I can graduate, went on to college, didn’t even think that I could finish college, went on to the police department, never thought I could take the test,” she said. “And when I retired — people go to Florida, they move away. I started a Ph.D program, because I wanted to move on in my life and give my kids and my family what I can and help support my parents. And nobody ever should ever call somebody a racist unless you know, what footprints they left on this earth.”

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.