List Ignites Investigation Of Hundreds Of Hampton Bays Properties

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Using a list of more than 500 addresses compiled by a local activist group, Southampton Town code enforcement officers have issued hundreds of code violations to more than 120 property owners in Hampton Bays since the spring. The offenses ranged from overcrowded and unsafe living conditions to a wide variety of other infractions of the town code and the state’s fire and safety codes.

The list was compiled over more than six months by the Concerned Citizens of Hampton Bays, a fledgling group that formed in 2011 specifically to spur action by the town on overcrowded housing.

The group presented the town with detailed information, gleaned by its members from publicly accessible information databases, regarding all 536 properties on the list—each in its own binder and filled with spreadsheets. The information presented to the town included such details as whether or not the property had a valid rental permit, the legal occupancy of the house, and anecdotal evidence of violations, such as the number of students attending local schools that list a single address as their residence, and the number of cars observed in a home’s driveway.

Southampton Town’s chief code enforcement officer, David Betts, said the town received the list from members of the CCHB at a meeting of the town’s Quality of Life Task Force last winter, and that it was forwarded to his office in the early spring. He said the seven full-time code officers split the list of addresses between them and have spent the last several months investigating each claim. The initial work is ongoing, he said, but nearly completed.

Town Attorney Tiffany Scarlato said that more than 120 of the properties on the list have already been issued violations, and that many more violations are still being investigated. “The list of violations is pretty long,” she said. “If you name it, they found it.”

Many of the properties, she said, were already the subject of code violation summonses, though Ms. Scarlato said she could not specify exactly how many.

Mr. Betts said the bulk of his department’s investigative work was done in the office or with cursory property examinations by officers. However, at least one property from the list was the subject of an early-morning, surprise search by several code officers last month. That house, located on Lynn Avenue in Hampton Bays, was found to have 21 people living in it, including the home’s owner, Michael Seaman, Mr. Betts said. The house had been expanded without building permits to add living space and the additional rooms did not meet state building safety codes, according to Mr. Betts.

Town Councilman Chris Nuzzi said the amount of work the community group had done in compiling the list was remarkable, adding that the initiative shown by members is sometimes necessary to help the town pursue its goals.

“Obviously, the town is reactive at times, by necessity, to the extent that we need to be made aware of certain complaints and violations,” Mr. Nuzzi said. “The Concerned Citizens group has been pretty aggressive of pushing the issue on the town, and when it is in receipt of valid complaints, we can go out and investigate these quality-of-life issues.”

Most of those involved acknowledged that the sweep is affecting a disproportionately large number of immigrants, particularly Latino families. But officials and organizers of the list say that is not their mission. Rather, they are only trying to ensure the protection of the public.

“The way I see this is not a focus on a group of people, it’s on property owners who are breaking the law,” Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said. “These are people that are renting under dangerous and unsafe conditions, who are threatening the lives of our residents.”

Even representatives of a group formed in Hampton Bays specifically to advocate for the large number of Latino immigrants living there raised little objection to the sweep itself, though they reiterated objections to the sort of early-morning intrusions that code enforcement officers have relied on for years to gather evidence of occupancy violations.

Sister Mary Beth Moore, a pastoral worker for Centro Corazón de Maria, an advocacy center for immigrants at the Church of St. Rosalie in Hampton Bays, said she was aware of 47 families, comprising approximately 200 people, whose homes were on the list of addresses targeted. Almost all of them were Latino, she said, and about half of the family members were children.

“Let me be the first to express wonderment that such detailed information would be utilized by this group and the town with concern for the welfare of residents, especially children,” Sister Moore said. “But what I would want to express in the strongest possible way, from the point of view of advocacy for these families, is that [code enforcement officers] don’t go on the early-morning raids, raise people from their sleep, which startles and terrifies small children, deal with them in their pajamas, and demand documentation from everyone.”

The bulk of the complaints submitted to the town by the CCHB was based on either evidence of overcrowding or of violations to the town’s property rental codes. The single largest complaint was whether one of the spotlighted houses had a valid rental permit in place.

Robert Liner, a founder of the CCHB, said the group built its list of suspected code violators gradually, through months of painstaking research and accounting work. About 20 of the group’s members worked together on compiling the list of suspect properties, he said, largely through visual evidence: houses that had apparent signs that many more people were living there than allowed. Those warning signs included a large number of cars parked in driveways and accessory structures converted to living spaces.

“The code provides for one car per bedroom, plus one extra car, so from those visual observations we realized that there was something amiss,” Mr. Liner said. “We posted on our website that residents could just send complaints to us and we would look into it, and it grew and grew.”

Mr. Liner said a member of his group—a former U.S. Postal Service mail fraud investigator whom he declined to name—compiled the information as it was brought to her by other members, building the spreadsheets of information on each property. Group members who work as builders, and are familiar with the town’s GIS system and the information it contains, helped mine for data on individual properties.

“We ended up with a very detailed, very accurate list that highlights the failure of compliance,” Mr. Liner said. “This was not a slip-shod job.”

The group also filed a public information request with the Hampton Bays School District, asking for a list of all properties listed as residences by children at the school that were identified as rentals—which the district requires with enrollment—and the number of children attending the school from those addresses. Those with numerous children listed were added to the list.

“We got the addresses and the number of kids, then we cross referenced that with the GIS information and if there are six kids and it’s a three-bedroom house, you can see that house is overcrowded,” said Mike Dunn, the president of the CCHB. “It’s a mathematics exercise.”

Hampton Bays Schools Superintendent Lars Clemenson said the district shared no students names or other identifiable information, which he said would be illegal. He also noted that the district does not raise questions about the number of children attending the school from an address itself, as long as the parents can prove that they are living in the district.

“We check residencies to make sure our kids live in the district and we keep a database of that information,” Mr. Clemenson said. “But if there’s a hundred people living in a two-bedroom house, they can all come to the school. If you can prove that you live in a tree house and you get mail up there, then we’re going to educate your kids.”

But for CCHB members, the numbers of students attending the district remains one of their seminal issues. The group formed in the wake of a series of code enforcement raids on Hampton Bays motels that were no longer operating as transient lodging for tourists and have become permanent residences for large numbers of people. After the raids, which resulted in hundreds of health and safety code violations, residents said they saw no change in the situation. Mr. Liner said a survey by residents found that 46 children were attending Hampton Bays schools from the illegally converted hotels, at a cost of more then $1 million a year to taxpayers.

The CCHB formed as a 501-c3 non-profit in November of 2011, with the mission of compiling the list of properties violating various codes and laws already on the agendas for the founding members.

“Our next call to members is going to be to help track these properties through the court system,” Mr. Dunn said. “We want to see where this goes and see why, in the past, nothing has happened to change any of these problems.”

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