In Southampton Town, Complying With Rental Law Carries A Heavy Burden

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Southampton Town Board members struggled this week to find ways to ease the burden of state home safety and maintenance codes on homeowners seeking to comply with the town’s rental permit law.

Spurred by complaints from homeowners, town officials are wrestling with the need to inspect houses that are being rented to ensure safety and compliance with occupancy limits, while at the same time trying to avoid forcing homeowners to take on expensive modifications they might otherwise never have to make.

The town’s chief building inspector, Michael Benincasa, told the board at a work session on Thursday, June 6, that when doing inspections for rental permits, his inspectors are duty-bound to enforce the state safety codes, including any recent updates. That means some landlords, who must apply to renew their rental permits every two years, may be forced to make regular changes to their homes to remain in compliance, even if those changes are not mandated by the town’s rental permit itself.

“When an individual comes to do what they are mandated to do, which is to fill out a rental permit, and they are subject to inspection in order to get that approval, we tend to cite them on things we do not check to make sure other homes are in compliance with,” Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said. “No matter what, they have to be in compliance—even if they got a certificate of occupancy before certain requirements were in the state code.”

After it approved a steep increase in the fines for habitual violators of the rental codes, upping the maximum potential fines to $30,000, the board heard a chorus of complaints from homeowners who said they have sought to comply with the rental law by applying for permits but have found it onerous and unreasonably expensive to meet the demands of building inspectors checking on compliance issues.

Some residents had said that despite having certificates of occupancy for their homes that were issued less than a decade earlier, they had been forced to spend thousands of dollars to replace fencing surrounding their entire property because of updated swimming pool enclosure codes.

The town currently has rental permits issued for about 1,300 homes, with another 450 pending—many of those waiting for the approval of building inspectors to sign off on previous failed inspections.

Mr. Benincasa estimated that of the generally 300 new rental permit applications the town receives each year, 270 fail their first inspection because the house does not comply with various local and state codes. Most of the issues are minor and are easily, and cheaply, fixed. But, he acknowledged, the particular issue of swimming pool enclosures has been a problem for a large number of homeowners and can be an expensive one to remedy.

“Probably 75 to 80 percent of the pools in the Town of Southampton don’t comply,” Mr. Benincasa told board members. “Sometimes it isn’t an easy fix, especially if the fence isn’t in compliance—they may need a new fence.”

The issue, board members highlighted, is that while every house in the town must technically comply with the updated pool enclosures, the vast majority of homeowners will never be forced to make any changes, because a building inspector will never be on their property. But because the rental law requires an inspection before a permit is issued, and inspectors must ensure compliance with all current state safety codes, those looking to rent their houses have a heftier burden to bear.

Councilman Chris Nuzzi lamented that the state would propose to insist, in a technical sense though not a practical one, that every single home be required to make periodic changes, forcing the hand of local municipalities trying to enforce their own codes even when those codes would not otherwise require any modifications.

“It’s just another ridiculous mandate by New York State that is unenforceable,” he groused. “Do they think every municipality is going to send out inspectors to say that your pool that was built five years ago no longer complies—fix it? That’s ridiculous. If that’s the case, maybe we should petition them to change it.”

Board members said that the only way to free homeowners from the mandates of the state code would be to shield the eyes of the inspectors, which would mean removing the inspection requirement from the rental law—a change that, board members admitted, would largely remove the teeth of enforcement and open the door to abuse by the sort of unscrupulous landlords the law was meant to target in the first place.

Mr. Benincasa said that his inspectors could not simply be told to ignore violations of state codes that are not specifically referenced in the town rental law.

“Once you put one of my inspectors on that property, I have to enforce this code,” he said, waving the 24-page state property maintenance code book. “I wasn’t happy about the pool requirement going in here, but I didn’t have anything to say about it.”

Mr. Benincasa said that about the only thing he can do to ease the burden on homeowners would be to pick out some of the most common issues that come up within the state code and make a checklist for homeowners that goes with the rental permit application, which could at least help reduce the number of applications that fail to comply on the first inspection. Beyond that, he said, he tells his inspectors to be as nice as possible when delivering bad news.

“The only thing I can offer is a friendly person to help them through it,” he said. “I tell my inspectors that when you’re telling them to do something they don’t want to do, try to smile, apologize. It at least makes them feel better.”

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