Massapequa is just the latest Long Island town fighting the scourge of illegal housing, deemed to be a drain to public services, a safety issue, and causing a decline in suburban-life tranquillity.
Leading the charge against multi-family dwellings is Bill Manton, president of the Breezy Point Civic Association. He moved from Levittown to Massapequa 16 years ago, and claims a slow evolution of illegal housing is threatening to engulf the area unless the proper laws are enforced, or new ones are created. Chief concerns of his ¬ and many other residents ¬ are the stresses such housing places on garbage collection, schools, traffic and safety, taxation, and quality of life.
Breezy Point's turf encompasses the area between Carmans and County Line Roads, from Sunrise Highway south to the shore, and contains approximately 4,000 homes.
Many occupants of these illegal, multi-family apartments are undocumented immigrants who work as day laborers making unsubsistent wages.
According to Manton, houses are bought and converted to multi-family units by landlords ¬ many of whom live out of state ¬ without ever applying for the appropriate town permits. Manton added that one home could hold up to five separate units. "It's a big problem here, but we are making some headway," he said.
Some of that headway includes Breezy Point's recent endeavor, when civic association members combed the neighborhood identifying homes with obvious illegal dwellings, and later confirmed by town tax records.
Houses with multiple mailboxes and entrance ways, an excess of parked cars, and untidiness were singled out. "One house was comical. A deck and two doors were not reported [to the town]" said Manton. "It's pretty easy to pick these houses out ¬ they're not really hiding anything."
Also not hidden is an excess of litter, which collects on some front lawns of multiple-family homes, said Manton. The civic association president contends some renters fail to keep their yards tidy, and absentee landlords, which he likened to "slumlords," allow homes to fall apart.
Breezy Point's complaints were recently taken to Oyster Bay's Town Board, and Councilwoman Bonnie Eisler promised to form a task force, comprised of town and county officials and civic leaders, to weigh options and explore avenues to limit this type of housing. "I don't profess to have the answers," said Eisler. "But I would like to bring the community together and look at this issue from all angles."
Eisler said illegal housing was a problem for the entire Town of Oyster Bay, and simply "kicking out" residents is not the appropriate course of action. But she acknowledges the drain such housing has on a neighborhood, and the awful tragedies that could happen when so many people share such small quarters.
Last year, a Huntington Station home was engulfed by flames, killing four of its 33 occupants. "A horrible tragedy," said Eisler. "The worst price you can pay" for living in such conditions.
Town of Huntington officials, unaware of the illegal dwelling housing mostly undocumented residents from El Salvador, learned after the fire that makeshift rooms were partitioned by hanging sheets and towels.
"I understand everybody needs a place to live," said Manton. "[But we] must provide people with safe housing."
Beefing-up law enforcement is an avenue the task force can take, but one problem is that town officials are not guaranteed access to suspected dwellings. "Other municipalities have higher access," said Eisler. "These are all things we hope to address."
In a few months time, the task force will present its findings and make recommendations, which could possibly include discussions on affordable housing. "With taxes and real estate as high as it is, it's becoming extremely difficult to find affordable housing," said Eisler.
Currently, the town provides low and moderate-income housing for seniors, and the Housing Authority provides rent assistance to families in need. But addressing the housing needs of undocumented residents could prove to be much more complex.