In its latest step towards improving the quality of life for Stony Brook residents who feel they are victimized by landlords violating town housing codes, the Town of Brookhaven announced plans to increase fines levied against those who violate them.
Supervisor Ed Romaine on Monday said fines would go from $2,000 up to $5,000 for landlords convicted of a first offense; for a second offense, fines would go from $3,000 up to $10,000.
Additionally, new code amendments are being proposed that would increase the law department's ability to take action against landlords who run alleged illegal college boarding houses. Romaine also said the town board is exploring ways to prevent landlords who pave over entire front yards to "create parking lots where front lawns should be" from doing so. The town is also considering changing the duration of rental permits from two-year permits to one-year permits, and to also arrange for a process in which landlords wishing to rent to multiple unrelated tenants must go before an entity similar to the accessory apartment review board. The town is also exploring creating a registry of vacant, foreclosed and rental properties with the town clerk's office.
The new amendments and procedures follow a measure passed in 2012 that limited the number of unrelated people that can legally occupy a house in Brookhaven from eight down to four, and placed the burden of proof on the landlord instead of the town.
Romaine also suggested the town tax assessor's office may get involved – and said he has instructed his investigators to call the IRS whenever it's discovered that a landlord is collecting rents from multiple students in the case of illegal rentals.
"If they're going to convert residential property to commercial property, maybe we need to up their assessment as well," Romaine said. "This is a cash business. ... I've instructed our town attorney's office on all of these locations to contact the IRS ... to make sure that not only our government but the federal government is involved to bring an end to this illegal housing."
Currently, the town is investigating or prosecuting 50 illegal rooming houses in the Three Village area – with "more to come," Romaine said.
"We want to send a message," he said. "If you're going to come into our community, if you're going to carve up these houses and create illegal rooming houses ... we're going to go after you and we're not going to stop."
Town councilman Steve Fiore-Rosenfeld backed the supervisor's remarks, and issued a statement urging residents to be continuously attuned to what's happening in their neighborhoods.
"Ultimately for our community to be successful in our collective efforts against unscrupulous landlords wanting to profit on the backs of our families' lost quality of life," he said, "we need the community to remain ever-vigilant and to report to our town law and public safety departments and the Suffolk County police what they see in real time."
Suffolk Legis. Kara Hahn, D-Setauket, thanked the community for coming forward in such influential numbers so as to motivate the town to act upon their concerns. "Never underestimate the power of community action, and that is really, really clear here today," she said.
Hahn continued: "This is not a new problem. We surround a growing university, but for too long [the local governments] have been slow to respond to the complaints of our neighbors. The problem grew, and this is no longer a student or two renting spare space in grandma's empty nest. This is a problem that has grown to really slumlord proportions. It's endangering the lives of students and it is hurting, harming, the quality of life in our community."
Bruce Sander, a resident who launched the Stony Brook Concerned Homeowners organization just over two weeks ago, said he saw the value of his house drop nearly "overnight" when a pair of college boarding houses "invaded our territory." Sander said the organization now has more than 300 residents as members.
"We are grateful for the help the Town of Brookhaven is putting forth to combat this infestation of investors buying up these single family homes," Sander said.
He called upon the town to streamline its investigations units with the operations of the building department, which he said he believes has issued rental permits to homes without verifying that the homes are within code.
Herb Mones of the Civic Association of the Setaukets and Stony Brook, which recently issued a call for increased fines against slumlords, said it's encouraging to hear the town is "moving in the right direction on a problem that has existed for the last 20 or 30 years."
However, he made an additional point: the discussions being had between the residents and the town seem to be marginalizing the students.
"I think that throughout the community there are students living in our neighborhoods, two, three, four students occuping a home that add to the vtiality, creativity and energy of the community and seamlessly integrate themselves into the fabric of our neighnorhoods. ... I would hate to think that in any way we are trying to stigmatize Stony Brook students, which i think is happening in our discussions," he said. "The [Civic Association] perspective has been that the students are being exploited under the circumstances."
Romaine had issued a statement warning students that they could be asked to leave their homes if their landlords are found to be in violation of town codes, and urged students to check out the legality of the house before signing a lease. "I don't think a student would want to be left without housing in the middle of a semester, but there's a good chance that will happen," he said in the statement.
On Monday, he said the town codes are not meant to ostracize students; when small numbers of students rent homes together and don't create disturbances, it is normally an acceptable situation.
"What's illegal is when you carve up a house and make it a rooming house, when you have interior locks and rent to more than three or four people, when you sign separate lease agreements with each and every one of them instead of all three signing one lease," he said. "It's a technical problem, but it's a problem."