Establishing an East Hampton Town rental registry, and requiring landlords to inform the town about their plans, would not solve housing code violations, nor even give town officials the clout that had been hoped for when the idea was first broached. So said Patrick Gunn, a town attorney and head of East Hampton’s Division of Public Safety, on Tuesday.
Furthermore, Mr. Gunn said, requiring property owners to submit to inspections would be unconstitutional, and without authority to conduct inspections, town Ordinance Enforcement Department officers would not gain much even were a registry instituted.
John Jilnicki, the town attorney, agreed. “The courts have ruled that owners have “a right to rent their property [and] a municipality can’t interfere with that right by requiring an inspection,” he said during the town board’s work session on Tuesday. Although Southampton, among other Long Island towns, has a rental registry, Mr. Gunn called them problematic. “It’s not something we can play with,” he said.
Board members had hoped that keeping tabs on rentals would not only help to ensure that houses do not become overcrowded, but would also help with deterrence and enforcement of housing laws by prescribing penalties for landlords who did not register.
Although a registry would not necessarily provide officers with the kind of enforcement teeth that had been hoped for, Mr. Gunn nevertheless suggested that the town board might still consider one for its limited benefits. For instance, Councilman Dominick Stanzione said, other municipalities that have rental registries have provisions that hold real estate agents accountable for compliance with the law.
Earlier at Tuesday’s meeting, several Amagansett residents, complaining of illegal summer share houses in their neighborhood, had pointed fingers at the brokers involved, suggesting they either looked the other way when arranging a lease for multiple tenants or failed to inform prospective renters of the laws.
Board members have also recently discussed a lack of information on some properties’ certificates of occupancy about the number of legal bedrooms in a house; having that information on file would allow enforcement officers to more easily establish if a house is overcrowded. Perhaps, suggested Councilwoman Sylvia Overby on Tuesday, the town could require landlords who wish to register their rentals to provide an updated C of O that includes that information.
But Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson wondered how that would help enforcement, and Mr. Stanzione said he would oppose such a requirement “because that would make everyone’s C of O invalid if they were to rent.”
The labor required of town staff, such as those in the Building Department, who would be charged with issuing new certificates of occupancy, must be weighed against the potential benefits, Councilwoman Theresa Quigley warned. “I can see benefits, but minimal benefits,” she said. She suggested an online registry, which town staff would not have to process. And as a penalty for failure to register, she suggested that landlords could be stripped of their right to pursue tenants in court for unpaid rent.
Mr. Stanzione suggested that the board continue to discuss a registry, and formulate a proposal that could be brought up for a public hearing. “We might take a stab at this,” he said of trying to balance the administrative requirements with “the need of the community to have greater accountability on the part of agents and landlords, and renters who continually abuse our code.”
Mr. Stanzione distributed a draft law for discussion at a future meeting. “At least it gets us started,” he said.