Romaine reintroduces housing bill


Suffolk County Legislator Edward Romaine has reintroduced a bill that would require that the county Department of Social Services place social services recipients “only in habitable housing accommodations.”

In February, in a deadlock, the bill failed to pass the legislature. All nine Democrats on the panel voted against it while the legislature’s seven Republicans and two Working Families Party members voted for it.

Mr. Romaine, a Republican, vowed then to reintroduce it. He said “Suffolk County should not be in the business of funding slumlords” and the “money of hardworking county taxpayers should not be spent on substandard housing in violation of town or village codes that diminish property values and quality of life in our communities.” Mr. Romaine said he would make changes in the measure and hoped it would gain broad support from the legislature.

“This is an important piece of legislation that I want to see adopted,” said the Center Moriches resident, whose district includes the North Fork, Shelter Island and part of Brookhaven Town. “I’m going to work with my colleagues to ensure we can develop legislation that will have ‘tri-partisan’ support.”

Although Mr. Romaine has made changes, it doesn’t look as if the revised measure will get wide Democratic support.

Legislator Jon Cooper, Democratic majority leader, said in an interview Monday that Mr. Romaine’s bill is “well intentioned” but flawed.

New York State, said Mr. Cooper, would not allow the county to exercise the powers Mr. Romaine has laid out for it in the measure. Moreover, the way the Romaine bill describes housing violations “is way too broad. If an owner has a deck too big or without a certificate of occupancy,” that could lead, under the bill, he said, to the Department of Social Services being required to move a social services recipient from the premises.

Also, said Mr. Cooper, the towns in Suffolk, not the county, “have the responsibility for inspecting buildings.” Furthermore, said Mr. Cooper of Lloyd Harbor, some social services clients might prefer to stay in housing in which there were some minor violations rather than move. Also, the bill, if enacted, could narrow the amount of housing available for social services clients, housing already in short supply, he said.

County Executive Steve Levy, a Democrat, commented Monday: “We are developing a program that will enhance coordination between town code enforcement and our Department of Social Services. We are offering the towns the opportunity to notify the county in writing of any facilities they have deemed as violating town codes. Social Services can then pressure the owner to remedy the problems or the department will work with clients to find suitable, legal housing elsewhere. This would be a method that can require code compliance while staying within the privacy restrictions set down by the state.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Romaine is sticking with his measure—and continues to regard it as needed and important. He said when he drafted it, “I didn’t think twice about it” in terms of others in county government objecting.

In the text of the bill, Mr. Romaine begins by declaring that “the placement of public assistance recipients in substandard housing is a long-standing-problem in our county.” The county “has enacted several local laws designed to prevent the placement of Department of Social Services’ clients in housing that is substandard, unsafe and/or non-compliant with local building and zoning codes and … despite these efforts, the unfortunate practice of placing public assistance recipients in substandard housing continues.”

He goes on to say in the measure that the Suffolk Legislature “wishes to establish that it shall be the policy of Suffolk County to house recipients of public assistance in accommodations that comply with applicable laws and codes.”

Under the bill, the commissioner of the County Department of Social Services “shall ensure that all recipients of public assistance housed with the assistance” of the department “reside in housing accommodations that are in compliance with all applicable building codes, ordinances and regulations of the municipality in which the housing accommodation is located.”

It provides that the commissioner “shall within 24 hours of being presented with documentary evidence” that such housing “is in violation of any applicable building code, ordinance and/or regulation that relates to the health, safety, and/or habitability of the … accommodation, notify the landlord … that unless the violation is remediated within 48 hours, the individuals or individuals housed … shall be removed and rent payments made by the county … will cease.”

Further, it says that if a social services recipient is moved, the commissioner is “authorized to deduct the costs associated with relocating such individual … to emergency housing” from any rental payments the county might make in the future to “such landlord.”

The bill is co-sponsored by Legislator Kate Browning, a Working Families Party member from Shirley.

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