Southampton Town’s new Department of Public Safety spent the past week engaging in one of its most comprehensive crackdowns yet on overcrowded and unsafe properties in Hampton Bays.
From Oct. 10 through Oct. 13, the department conducted what it’s calling a Strategic Code Compliance Enforcement Operation, investigating three motels and 42 houses, and issuing 215 code violations for conditions ranging from overflowing sewage to non-functioning smoke and carbon monoxide detectors to conversions of houses from single to multi-family dwellings.
“This is, to my knowledge, the largest such operation I’ve ever heard of on a town level, a coordinated effort where a hamlet area was focused in on for issues of overcrowding and public safety,” said Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman at a press conference at town hall Friday afternoon. “Our primary concern as always is public safety. God forbid there’s a fire and people can’t get out of an overcrowded situation. We also care about neighbors — overcrowding dumpsters, noise, too many cars.”
Mr. Schneiderman said the code enforcement officers worked with immigrant advocates and the Department of Social Services to ensure the inspections were conducted with respect for tenants who may not be aware that they are renting substandard housing.
“Having this operation conducted with the highest respect for human dignity was always our intent,” he said. “We understood that there were children involved. We didn’t want anyone being traumatized. We understand that these are workers in our community. In many cases they may not even know that they are violating the law. They have found places they could afford and it’s really the landlords that are violating the law.”
The town’s new Code Compliance and Emergency Management Administrator Steven Troyd, a former FBI agent, gave an overview of some of the conditions cited during the operation.
Some of the most egregious violations were documented at the Bel Aire Cove Motel on Shinnecock Road, where Mr. Troyd said code enforcement officers found “multiple units infested with bedbugs and roaches,” missing or non-functioning smoke detectors, an overflowing septic system and an overflowing dumpster. He added that the hotel had recently experienced a four-day power loss, during which residents had to get rid of spoiled food and had no hot water.
Mr. Troyd said the town conduced the inspections after a one-year investigation, which included surveillance of the property.
Another private home on Hill Station Road, a four-bedroom house with 17 tenants, was issued summonses for hazardous electrical wiring, illegal basement living space with no emergency egress, non-functioning smoke detectors and mold on the ceiling. Mr. Troyd said the owner of the house had eight misdemeanor convictions for similar offenses.
Mr. Troyd said another motel owner on North Road is “actively engaged in compliance” on his property. He added that there were no violations at 17 of the properties visited.
Code Enforcement Officers executed search warrants at some of the places that were the subject of long investigations, he said, while at many properties they simply engaged in the practice of “knock and announce” their presence and reason for inspecting the property.
While the tenants are still in their homes while the citations make their way through the judicial process, Supervising Code Enforcement Officer Chris Fraser said landlords will have to go through the court system to evict residents of overcrowded properties.
“We’re not going to just walk in and say ‘get out of your house.’ There is a process,” he said.
“These are hardworking people making due in a bad situation,” said Mr. Troyd.
The town is working with its new Director of Housing & Community Development Diana Weir on helping tenants find options.
Ms. Weir, who was at the press conference, said tenants concerned about the citations can contact the town’s office of public safety at 631.702.1700 for resources to find safer housing, and added that there are Spanish-speaking employees there who can offer them help.
“It’s a very wholistic approach with the gentlest ways of handling families,” she said. “They’re very sensitive to that.”
“If people are living in conditions that are unsafe, they shouldn’t be there, for their own good,” said Mr. Schneiderman. “God forbid there’s a tragedy…if 20 people died in a basement fire.”
“This is proactive,” he added. “We hear there’s a problem at a location, ID public safety issues, and work to correct them and in some places help find people someplace else to live.”