Pictured Above: Councilwoman Catherine Kent (left) and Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar (right) at the Aug. 17 public hearing.

What on earth was the Riverhead Town Board thinking?

This was the overwhelming consensus from residents in response to a proposal by the Riverhead Town Board to define the “functional equivalent of a family” for the purpose of rental housing.

Dozens of commenters took to the podium and wrote letters entered into the record for a Aug. 17 public hearing, decrying the proposed code changes, which Deputy Town Attorney Eric Howard said were designed to make it easier for the town to enforce its rental occupancy permit rules.

The code would require occupants to live and cook together as a single housekeeping unit, share household expenses, and provide proof that their occupancy is permanent and stable.

While Mr. Howard said the proposed definition “is far looser than Brookhaven or Southampton” towns, speaker after speaker said they believed the changes would be a major civil rights violation that would have the effect of pressuring landlords to discriminate against prospective tenants.

Christine Velia, a law student at Touro Law Center, told the board that the proposal was a violation of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which prohibits both intentional housing discrimination and actions that could have the impact of disproportionately harming vulnerable members of society.

“It does not require intent or racial motivation, only that it has a discriminatory effect,” she said. 

Sandra Dunn, the Associate Director of Organizacion Latino Americana of Eastern Long Island, built on Ms. Velia’s argument, reading a letter from tenant rights attorney Jack Lester that said the right to establish a home is part of the constitutional freedoms granted under the 14th Amendment.

“This discriminates against people associating in a household out of economic necessity,” she read, adding that the law would exacerbate the East End’s already existing affordable housing crisis.”

Mr. Lester’s letter added that, if enacted, Riverhead would be “creating a statutory scheme that victimizes tenants,” while not enforcing existing code provisions aimed at protecting the safety of tenants.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, a retired New York City Police Department counterterrorism Detective Sergeant with a Ph.D. in business and a real estate license, rode to victory in 2019 on a platform of curbing overcrowded housing, saying the former administration’s lack of action led to ballooning enrollment and increasing taxes in the Riverhead Central School District. 

Ms. Aguiar, a Republican, is up for re-election this November, and many in attendance saw this new proposal, drafted under the direction of Councilman Ken Rothwell, who was appointed by Ms. Aguiar this year, as an attempt by the supervisor to continue to drive the same wedge into the community that led to her victory two years ago.

“You’re continuing to use this issue as a political wedge, as was done in 2019,” said Steve Kramer, who lives in downtown Riverhead. Mr. Kramer said Riverhead’s practice of allowing high rise buildings to be built downtown without the appropriate infrastructure is responsible for many of the town’s problems with growth.

“You’re using this wedge to divide the town, no matter the cost to residents,” he said. “I am here to say ‘No More.’ Take responsibility for what has been done. Address the issues your own votes have created downtown.”

Evelyn Hobson-Womack, a retired Detective with the Riverhead Police Department and an Army veteran who was also the town’s first African American female officer, is running for a seat on the town board this fall, on the Democratic ticket.

“What does this say about our town, that we have an only recently appointed town board member come up with this?” she said. “This is an offensive attempt to limit who can live in our town. Our tax dollars paid a Riverhead town attorney to draw this up… You are supposed to be working for our residents, not against them.”

Councilwoman Catherine Kent, the sole Democrat on the board, is running for Town Supervisor against Ms. Aguiar. Ms. Kent said she had been removed from the town’s code revision committee by Ms. Aguiar earlier this year because she was making progress at drafting equitable code changes.

“Lawyers say this is unenforceable and possibly unconstitutional and may lead to litigation,” she said of the current proposal, adding that the town should instead give code enforcement officers the tools they need to enforce laws already on the books. “It’s just another political proposal before an election, and quite frankly, it is a mess.”

“You act like you’re a big hero and savior who is going to make everything good,” said Councilman Tim Hubbard as Ms. Kent spoke. “You knew about this and you put nothing into this.”

His comments were met with some laughter from the crowd, after which Ms. Aguiar snickered and said “it is laughable.” Someone in the crowd then said “I think they’re laughing with her,” referring to Ms. Kent.

Many in the crowd took note of the tone deafness of this exchange.

“You should have considered there would be pushback. That really makes me wonder. Have you walked or lived in the shoes of these people?” said Larry Street, a Riverhead resident and President of the Eastern Long Island Branch of the NAACP. “I’m really curious. Was there anybody at the table when you came up with this who thought maybe you should rethink this? Not you, Catherine, everybody knows who I’m talking about. Maybe this board needs a reset. You need more diversity.”

Many Latino residents also took to the podium to question the logic of the proposal.

“I’m here to represent our community. A lot of us feel good about having people that are not related living in the same house as we are,” said a woman named Elmira, in Spanish. Her comments were translated by OLA East End Transportation Advocate Alma Tovar. “Single mothers like I am cannot afford a regular house to live in with our children. It is important that we share the rent with others. This is because we are here without related family. These people became family to us.”

OLA Executive Director Minerva Perez told the board that her organization spent more than $900,000 during the pandemic on Chromebooks and Wifi for students in the Riverhead School District, regardless of their ethnic background.

“Our care is genuine,” she said. “Why, right now, would a government body strike at the heart of a community when they’re at their most weak? The end of the eviction moratorium is going to unleash a flood of evictions like we’ve never seen before. If your concern is the health and welfare of the people of Riverhead, look at the vaccine rate. We could be addressing the challenges of all the most vulnerable folks in Riverhead. You’re laying brick upon brick upon brick of instability, fear and danger on children and the most vulnerable people of your community. I beg you not to support this type of change.”

Father Gerardo Romo, coordinator of the Episcopal Church North Fork Hispanic Ministry, said he’s lived in the area for six years, during which time he’s moved twice, and he now has to move again.

“This whole region is based on agriculture and tourism services. Most people working in those industries cannot afford a house by themselves,” he said. “There is not enough housing. Agricultural workers whose families are in other countries, they won’t meet the ‘traditional family’ standard. It is a term that is so archaic now. Families are so diverse. It is impossible to enforce. You cannot say ‘you are not a family because you don’t share furniture and cook a meal together.’” 

He added that godparents in Latin American culture, called padrinos and madrinas, are considered part of a person’s family.

Father Romo added that he knows a family who has seven children who live in a one bedroom house.

“That house is overcrowded, but they are a family,” he said. 

“I’m like father. I can’t find housing,” said Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Hispanic Apostolate. “We could move in together and be a religious family.”

“Every single day, I get a medal in my office for building up Mastic, Shirley and Port Jefferson. That’s where everybody is moving,” she said. “Very shortly, we are going to see Riverhead on the downgrade. We are losing our base of low paid workers and the economy is going to suffer tremendously. People ask me all the time if I have workers for their company, and I say ‘no, I don’t, because they can’t afford to live here.’”

Ellen Hoyle, who is running on the Democratic ticket for Town Tax Assessor, noted that this was the first time she’d seen an armed patrol officer in the room at a town board meeting.

Councilman Hubbard countered that the police chief, who carries a gun, is often in the audience.

“He doesn’t have a taser,” said Ms. Hoyle of the chief.

“You already have a town code that will do what you want to do. You just need to enforce it. I don’t understand why we’re doing all this. It’s not necessary,” she added. “What this does is give a landlord power to discriminate. It puts the onus on the landlord to determine who they’re renting to or face a fine.”

Ms. Hoyle said the proposal also concerned her as a member of the LBGTQ community.

“We have a long history of not living within traditional families, because we weren’t allowed to. This is onerous on us. We have spent our lives creating our families, and you are now taking those away,” she said.

“This is a working class community with a proud immigrant heritage,” said Long Island Housing Services Executive Director Ian Wilder, who is also a Riverhead resident. “Every immigrant wave that has come here has come in the same way, no matter where they came from. They lived in non-traditional homes. This is not something that is new. We would like our community to stay a welcoming community.”

After more than two hours of comment, Ms. Aguiar said the board will “have to get back to the table” after hearing the public input.

“When I started school, I only spoke Spanish. My parents were so poor they had to make clothes for me out of curtains. To turn around and call me a racist — that’s the last thing I am,” she said. “Nobody should ever call somebody a racist unless they know what footprints they left on this earth.”

Councilman Hubbard said the proposal came in response to a 2005  incident in the Bronx where two firefighters became disoriented in an illegally partitioned apartment and ended up jumping 50 feet to their deaths to escape a burning building. The date of their death is known as Black Sunday within the FDNY.

“The thought behind the initial review was ‘how do we make sure an incident like that never happens here,” said Mr. Hubbard. “We have seen our children living in deplorable conditions. That’s what this initiative is about. It’s not about picking on any one person because of their skin color, ethnicity or anything else.”

“I hope there will be only good and healing for us, and that we’ll make decisions together as one community,” said Ms. Kent.

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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