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Community addresses ongoing concerns with off-campus housing

(GÜL BERKTAŞ / THE STATESMAN)
The legislative action against illegal housing includes raising fines and penalties, expanding the violation to misdemeanors and reducing the term for rental permits from 24 months to 15 months. (GÜL BERKTAŞ / THE STATESMAN)

Stony Brook Concerned Homeowners, Ltd., the group fighting illegal rented homes in residential neighborhoods, held a meeting at the Mount School in Stony Brook on Wednesday, Oct. 23 for its members to discuss the ongoing issues with students living off-campus.

The nonprofit community organization, which formed in March 2013, held a meeting that drew in a crowd consisting of township residents, Town of Brookhaven officials, and Suffolk County officials, along with the group’s founders Bruce Sander and Anthony DeRosa.

Sander opened the gathering by stressing that it was “not a political meeting by any means,” but instead that they were there for a single issue, “boarding houses.”

He reiterated the group’s goals, which include encouraging single families to buy homes in the neighborhood and that absentee landlords are not welcome.

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine said Sander and DeRosa spoke to him in January about a “situation where a single family community, so zoned by the Town of Brookhaven, was being taken advantage of” by absentee landlords.

He mentioned how landlords buy houses in the neighborhood, illegally “chopping them up” without submitting building plans or plans through the Fire Marshal, and put interior locks on the doors of rooms that are rented out to students.

Supervisor Romaine said that since he has taken office, there have been 160 properties under investigation, with enforcement action taken against 87 properties, while 35 properties have come into compliance with the rental codes. The legislative action included raising fines and penalties, expanding the violation to misdemeanors, reducing the term for rental permits from 24 months to 15 months and outlawing the ability for people to pave front lawns to create parking.

Brookhaven Town Councilman Steve Fiore-Rosenfeld said that due to a United States Supreme Court decision (Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, 1974), landlords cannot be prevented from buying a whole house. Instead, the town can “tinker with the number of individuals” allowed to live in the house. Four non-related individuals are permitted to reside in one house, due to changes in town code.

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn briefly spoke about how the county gets involved based on the health code.

“The county can charge as much as $2,000 a day when it’s outside of the sewer district, if there is a health code violation, and that will really break the business model [of the illegal landlords],” Hahn said.

Assistant Vice President of Government and Community Relations Michael Arens discussed the university’s role in dealing with the housing problem. According to Arens, the university is “taking every single effort to educate them [the students] and their parents on what it takes to live off campus.”

Arens addressed one of Sander’s concerns about a Stony Brook faculty member who owns homes that are rented out. “If you feel there is a faculty member or university employee who is doing something against town code, you have every right to go file a complaint with New York State,” Arens said, referring to the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), through which complaints can be filed.

According to Anthony DeRosa, the group wants the university to approach the issue “more aggressively.” Howard Armas, who Sander and DeRosa consider a part of SBCH’s executive board, made a presentation of what he found to be discrepancies in information provided by a letter sent out by the university that addressed the issue.

“I was left more questions than answers from this letter, so I started to dig…a little bit deeper,” he said.

Armas looked at enrollment data for undergraduate and graduate students that the university provides online. “So in this letter I picked out a statistic where they said that 60 percent of undergrad students who live off campus live at home with their parents or their spouse,” he said. “So that’s great, but they don’t say what exactly [the remaining] 40 percent amounts to.”

Based on his calculations, which he referred to as a “conservative estimate,” Armas arrived at 5,260 “undergraduate and graduate students in need of off-campus housing today in 2013.” For “perspective,” he compared the number to the town population, in which the numbers of residents were close to or below his estimation.

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