With summer coming to a close and the high rental season over, Southampton Town Councilman Chris Nuzzi said he hopes to see the Town continue its determined enforcement of the rental code. “My opinion is we should be as aggressive as we possibly can,” Nuzzi said.
The councilman said that Southampton dished out nearly $30,000 in fines for cases involving violations at 13 rental properties over the summer. He added that many code violations could result in “significant health and safety risks” to occupants and neighbors. Punishable offenses may be as simple as not paying the required $200 fee for a two-year rental permit, but Nuzzi also described flagrant abuses and appalling conditions in a number of cases.
“We’ve seen some pretty deplorable conditions within some of these houses,” he said, noting that some landlords allow their single-family homes to be cut up into so many units that inhabitants have no safe egress in the event of a fire, not to mention substandard living conditions. For example, Nuzzi cited one property that had a hole cut into the middle of the floor and a staircase put in to access a basement room. After descending the stairs, he said the resident still had to basically climb over a wall to get into the living space below. Nuzzi noted that other infringements include numerous Hampton Bays motels being used for permanent occupancy, and home rentals becoming prom party houses, like the particularly shocking case involving Lee Hnetinka and his company Hamptons and Sons renting out East End mansions for three-day teenage parties, while many of the homeowners believed they would be used for extended family reunions and other more benign gatherings. “We have found significant risks,” he said.
The Hnetinka case put the need for strong code enforcement into focus when the story broke in July, but Nuzzi and Councilwoman Christine Preston Scalera were already actively pursuing their more aggressive stance when they brought back the Town’s Housing and Quality of Life Task Force in February. Nuzzi was part of the task force’s inception with then supervisor Skip Heaney back in 2006, but it had ceased operation before Nuzzi and Scalera brought it back this year. “It’s our duty to be responsive with code enforcement,” Nuzzi said.
The original rental permit law went into effect years ago when share houses became an issue in Southampton Town, and if property owners fail to get the proper permit and pay the $200 fee, “the penalties can be pretty stiff,” Nuzzi said. Neighbors or local civic associations often report code violations, but the Town also finds the culprits on its own, Nuzzi said. “We have an active Code Enforcement Department,” he explained, noting that in the cases of prom houses, illegal resort businesses and the like, “they’re pretty noticeable and pretty flagrant.”
While the Town may be cracking down these days, Nuzzi said no one is interested in hurting the rental market or denying the affordable housing opportunities rentals can offer. “There are ways to legally rent a home,” he said. “That’s an integral part of the economy out here.”
There are many large homes with many bedrooms in Southampton, and Nuzzi said it is perfectly legal to have friends and family stay for a party, but making a business out of it is something else. “We’re not looking to raise revenue here,” he said, again citing health and safety as the major issues. “There are big problems and then there are small issues,” and landlords are dealt with accordingly, the councilman said.
“Our goal is really to get people in compliance.”