The East Hampton Town Board will hold a much anticipated public hearing next week on a proposal to create a registration requirement for all single-family homes that are available for rent in East Hampton Town.
Opponents of the proposed law, which was amended after staunch criticism a year ago, have been publicly blasting the legislation since its reintroduction as overbearing and invasive meddling on behalf of the town that will open up them and their tenants to fines as high as $30,000 and, potentially, jail time.
Critics have said that in addition to being invasive, the inconveniences of complying with the registry’s requirements will dampen interest in rentals, rob the town and homeowners of important revenue and will be ineffective at solving the issues of overcrowding and disruptive rental practices it is billed as being needed to address.
In recent weeks, public critics have largely focused on parts of the law that query homeowner-landlords about details of their homes, like the number of bedrooms and layout of living space. The law’s authors say such questions, which must be answered and sworn to by the homeowner in their registry application, simply helps document what an allowable tenancy of a rental house would be. Landlords say it is governmental intrusion.
“No doubt you can require us to have smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors, but when you want to enter our homes and count mattresses, you have gone too far,” Amagansett homeowner and landlord Elaine Harris wrote in a letter to the town late last month. “A man’s home is his castle and unless you have an invitation or a search warrant, you are not welcome inside.”
In her letter, Ms. Harris, an attorney and Amagansett homeowner, went on to claim that the rental registry law, as proposed, would violate the U.S. Constitution in a variety of ways, including ignoring protections from unreasonable search and seizure and discarding the “innocent until proven guilty” presumption of the justice system.
Other landlords have focused on the steep fines and even potential jail time laid out in sections of the law for repeat violators of the town’s existing restrictions on rental housing.
“This law, as it is proposed, ratchets up the liability to a whole new level,” said Thomas Steele, an East Hampton homeowner who has been a vocal critic of the law. “Either a tenant or a landlord can find themselves in violation of the law through no act of their own and faced with these very stiff fines and possible jail time. Sure, you can horse trade with the town attorney but what you end up trading away is that they want to come in and inspect the property. I find that very distasteful. I don’t think the government should be coming in and inspecting people’s homes.”
And the critics say the law will not solve the problem of overcrowding or unruly share houses.
“This won’t stop the 18 people living in one house, seven of them in the basement, or the 30 kids sleeping in closets on a weekend,” said a Montauk homeowner and rental property owner, who asked not to be identified by name. “Those landlords know they’re breaking the law and don’t care. They’re just trying get us off Airbnb and make the town money.”
Town lawmakers, ordinance enforcement personnel and the attorneys who labor to prosecute violations and nudge landlords back into complying with town codes, say the registry will indeed be a useful tool in its efforts to crack down on dangerous overcrowding in both year-round rentals and summer share-houses and particularly on homeowners who rent their homes for short stays, a practice that supporters of a registration requirement say constitutes a house being used like a hotel and degrades residential neighborhoods.
“We’ve seen a groundswell of community concern for their neighborhoods, which are being impacted by these problematic rental properties,” Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez said this week. “This legislation came about because we were seeing a disproportionate number of housing violations were being written for houses that are for rent.”
Assistant Town Attorney Michael Sendlenski, who helped author the current legislation, said that the key benefit the rental registry will provide the town is efficiency in identifying and tracking properties that are chronic violators of the existing codes, and holding landlords accountable for violations they knew were taking place at their properties.
With the rise of Airbnb.com, the town has had a particularly difficult time proving legally that a landlord is renting their house for short-term rentals on a high-turnover basis.
Town code allows just two rentals of less than 14 days per season. The registry legislation requires that each time a new tenant will be occupying a rental property, the landlord must file a one-page notice with the town.
The provision, according to Mr. Sendlenski, will both help the town prevent such turnover from happening with landlords unaware of the law, and prosecute those who violate it.
“Without the registry it requires at least three or four trips to the premises to prove that there is excessive turnover,” Ms. Sendlenski said. “People just claim that they didn’t know they weren’t allowed to do things. With the registry, when someone comes in for third notice of a short-term rental, they’ll be notified that isn’t able to happen and we can head off that rental and avoid having to go to court.”
Ms. Sendlenski also addressed concerns that the new rules would threaten landlords with unfounded liabilities for violations discovered during a rental. The town already goes to lengths to determine whether or not a landlord is culpable for a violation, he said, and frequently declines to prosecute a landlord who was unaware of violations created by tenants. A variety of scenarios that have been proposed by homeowner-landlords about possible charges being brought because a group of friends stays in a house or a renter has relatives over, are unfounded, Mr. Sendlenski said.
The drafters of the registry have highlighted frequently that since the first hearings on the proposal last winter, the law has been tailored extensively to ease the burdens on landlords in registering their homes. The town dropped, among others, requirements that certificates of occupancy be updated and that an inspection of the house be conducted by a building inspector or architect. What is left, Ms. Gonzalez said, is a very basic notification to the town that someone plans to rent their house, with few costs associated with it.
“If [a homeowner] is playing by the rules,” Ms. Gonzalez said, “they won’t have an issue.”