As many residents return to their homes after a summer spent in points west, traveling or living in campers while their houses are occupied by summer renters, town officials are saying that this will be the last summer without some form of required rental registration for East Hampton homeowners.
After two years of legislative fits and starts, all five of the East Hampton Town Board members have made it clear in recent weeks that by next summer they want to have a townwide registry of rental houses in place to aid code enforcement officers in clamping down on those who abuse the rental tradition.
What the registration will demand from homeowners will be hammered out by board members, and the public, this fall and winter.
“People have been renting their homes as long as I’ve lived here … and they rely on it to pay their mortgages and put their kids through college, and they don’t want a process that gets in the way of that,” Supervisor Larry Cantwell said this week. “At the same time, we have a number of people who are violating the fundamental principals of zoning, and single-family neighborhoods are being impacted by the commercialization of housing. Overcrowding, weekly turnovers—in the long term, that has a negative impact on the quality of life for everyone.”
Board members’ views differ somewhat on what requirements are needed, but all say they want the process to be easy for the property owner to follow if they are obeying the rules.
The town will hold its latest public conversation on the proposed town rental registry law next week, and most of the details of what the law will require from homeowners remain up in the air.
Versions of the draft law have proposed that a homeowner be required to register with the town and notify the town of who their tenants are, including updates whenever a tenant changes.
Board members have been hesitant about whether or not, or to what degree, the town should require specific inspections as a requirement of registration to ensure that the house complies with building and safety codes. In neighboring Southampton Town, where issuance of a rental permit requires an inspection by a town building inspector, homeowners have groused that the biennial renewal process has been overly burdensome, and costly, for renters who must make updates to their homes to comply with newly adopted state building codes—a point some East Hampton lawmakers have said they want to avoid.
“If you’ve maintained your house well but maybe you don’t have GFCI outlets in the kitchen, does that mean I should have to go rewire my kitchen?” Councilwoman Sylvia Overby said. “That’s not something I want us to get into with this.”
Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc said that the town does need to ensure that safety codes are really being met. “If we’re issuing a permit, there should be some effort to make sure that it’s meeting health and safety standards,” he said.
Previous discussions of the registry proposal have focused on whether a homeowner should be able to simply declare that their house is safe for occupancy on their own and pledge that it complies with building standards, or whether inspections are needed.
“If you’re renting your house, you would want your pool fence to be up to snuff, wouldn’t you? You’d want your smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors functioning,” Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez said. “So we’re talking about letting you do one of three things: have an inspector inspect the property, you could bring a homeowner affidavit, or you can have an engineer or architect sign off on it.”
Most towns in Suffolk County—seven out of 10—have registry or permit requirements for rental landlords. In Springs, where overcrowded year-round housing has been the main issue of consternation, more than 600 residents have signed a petition pleading with the town to create a registry as another tool for cracking down on slumlords who flout standards of safe occupancy.
Critics of the registry idea have claimed that compliance with permits and registries in other towns remains low and that the registration process is burdensome and punishes even those who play by the rules.
When the rental permit proposal was up for discussion last winter it was met with substantial opposition from homeowners and some local real estate agents who represent landlords. This summer, one agent circulated an appeal to homeowners to renew their opposition whenever the Town Board takes up the issue again.
“We agents speak about this a lot and feel that a rental registry won’t actually help control share houses or crowding,” the appeal sent by email said. “The rules to regulate that already exist and are just hard to enforce. These new rules will only make it harder for people who try to do things by the book. Those who don’t care will continue to not care and the rules will continue to be tough to enforce.”
But East Hampton officials say documenting of rental properties can protect homeowners and help with the prosecution of chronic violators, particularly with the increasingly common problem of frequent turnover of tenants through the use of online rental sites like AirBnB.com and VRBO.com.
“One of the big enforcement issues for us is that we have to go back to a house that is being rented to someone different every weekend three times before we can prove that they’re breaking the code,” Assistant Town Attorney Michael Sendlenski said. “If there’s a registry and we show up and they’re not registered—here’s your ticket.”