Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Southampton’s Final Solution

We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.
-- Martin Luther King Jr (1929 - 1968)

Over the past several weeks, the Town of Southampton, the new Supervisor Linda Kabot, the judges in the local Justice Court, the Town Board, Cheryl Kraft’s Code Enforcement boys, Michael Sendlenski of the Town Attorney’s Office and David Betts, the “Detective” who searches for illegal rental housing – have come under some unwanted and unexpected scrutiny by none other than the New York Times.
While inquiries were made by others of the press – none have gotten a response. The New York Times reporter Corey Kilgannon, however, did manage to interview some of the people who were victims of the Heaney/Nuzzi primary election targeting against Kabot. Among others, Kilgannon interviewed some of the tenants of the new Supervisor Linda Kabot’s aunt whose rental cottages were the subject of a raid by Code Enforcement – police who now appear to have assigned themselves the right to check the immigration status of tenants along with the condition of smoke detectors and electrical extension cords.

The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, Telemundo, the NYCLU, all appear to have interest in a law that in various degrees has copied what other villages and towns have discovered. They were interested in the fact that Southampton now appears to have a new solution to the problem of immigration that the Bush boys were either unwilling or unable to solve.

In the Town of Southampton, the solution to getting rid of “illegals” has become – let’s make them so safe that they want to leave.
While code enforcement is a usual function of the Building Department or Public Safety, it has now become the Storm Troopers of the political right wing.
How else would you explain the fact that:
A. White residents who have auxiliary apartments in “mother-daughter” houses such as are favorites of retirees, police, firefighters, EMS, and local teachers – are exempt from the law and never have inspections.
B. Codes that are referenced in the new rental law are already on the books and were not enforced – but now carry fines of up to $15,000 per day per violation.
C. Inspections are carried out at 5 a.m. with groups of officers carrying guns and badges who force themselves into houses to wake its occupants, require identification, check immigration status, glance at smoke detectors, extension cords and plumbing fixtures – and then notify the owner that a criminal summons is about to be issued.
D. “Skip” Heaney, from Hampton Bays – where the largest voting bloc in the Town of Southampton is located – and Chris Nuzzi, Town Board member from “Crookhaven” were the force behind the rental law and in their campaign they publicized the fact that they would rid the town of “illegal immigrants” if they were elected.
E. The local press which consists of Suffolk Life, a newspaper whose publisher’s son ran the Heaney campaign – and the Southampton Press, whose editor was placed in her position by Skip Heaney, have been silent on the issue of racism and the real reason for the new law. Both publications have given voice to the right wing "Minutemen" mentality who support the law as a disguised way of evicting tenants through fear and intimidation.

The supporters of this law – which replaces the former Summer Rental law – are people who are ill informed and who persist in lying about their real motivation. And, that is, the racism behind it all. It is not simply anti-illegal immigrant. It is anti-Latino.
Why else would people who have fully legal immigration status be swept up in these raids as well?
Why would only the properties occupied by Latinos, some of them living in million dollar residences – be the only ones visited and inspected at 5 am? Do the Codes require visitations before dawn to check for plumbing malfunctions -- to "PROTECT" the tenants?

What none of them considered was the fact that this Town is not the same as many other villages and towns across Long Island. In this town, the bills are paid by New Yorkers who don’t, as of yet, have the ability to vote on the laws that are passed which affect them directly. Most of the rental housing is owned by New Yorkers who have invested in this resort area.
In Southampton Town, the lack of affordable housing has been seriously supplemented by investment property owned by non-resident property owners – NOT absentee landlords living in some foreign country or distant state. They are right here, among us, in business -- PAYING TAXES. The taxes that pay the salaries of the local government workers seeking to put the property owners in jail if they rent to Latinos.
That was Heaney’s big mistake. He counted on the silence of the “Good Jews” who would accept more of the same treatment. No rights, no vote, no voice.
That is about to change.

Why haven't ALL of the properties in the Town been inspected for safety violations?
Why was there no concern for everyone’s safety 10 years ago when the same codes existed?

The answers are simple as well as obvious.

If the illegal and unsafe housing that pervades the Town were reviewed via 5 am interventions by the Storm Troopers from the rubber gun squad, most of the cops, firemen, senior citizens as well as the largest voting bloc in Hampton Bays – would be crawling up the asses of everyone in Town government. Because, none of them could withstand the scrutiny of even a minor code or safety inspection.

In defense of this law, a Mr. Sacco was widely quoted by both the Southampton Press and Suffolk Life. At a meeting with the Town in which a decision to delay the implementation of this law was being considered, he pointed out that a refrigerator was thrown out in the street four years ago in front of the house next to him. This refrigerator, which apparently still had a door on it, he pointed out, posed a risk to small children. “The landlords were living in Pennsylvania,” he was quoted as saying.
Okay, a tenant threw out a refrigerator and was a danger to small children.

Fine. This sounds like a code violation. Call the police and Code Enforcement arrives (if they were doing their jobs then), and they get it out of there. No Code Enforcement shows up --and it’s the Town not doing its job. Does this mean that all tenants always do what is safe, smart, or even legal? There is an existing law to deal with such a violation. Or, Mr. Sacco, protector of small children, whether it was a tenant or an owner (who are sometimes equally stupid) – if you saw a dangerous situation – wouldn't you take the door off yourself? Unless, of course, you want to watch a tragedy unfold for the sake of being right.
Southampton Town’s Chief Building Inspector, Mr. Benincasa, also spoke about safety issues. He talked about a violation where there was gas involved.
He said it could have resulted in the situation being like “a bomb.”
From all reports that have remained unspoken – a thorough inspection of the corruption in that department (from payoffs, to inside deals involving delays and overlooked defects) might save a lot more lives than the sudden awareness of safety in the housing stock.
One if that department’s more notorious employees, for example, one who is now the Building Inspector of Westhampton Beach (in a political deal), a Mr. Houlihan, was the subject of numerous lawsuits. Favored applicants had (and still do have) an easy time of it while enemies of the administration or those whom he personally disliked were given a very hard time. This is only the lowest level of corruption. One would imagine, however, that Mr. Benincasa would want to keep his pension intact and it is unlikely we will hear much more about it unless a Federal investigation is again unleashed in the Town.

There is no affordable housing because the local government has been asleep at the switch for decades and now that need has been filled by private housing as a result of that lack of planning and corruption on the part of Town officials. And, the Town doesn’t like it because they cannot constitutionally control it. Therefore, they have learned to attack those who have filled the void -- non-resident, tax-paying landlords.
The Heaney government, along with the Building Department, Town Attorney’s office and the favored local law firms – all operated on a graft level that kept any project that did not have a serious level of “green” under the table – years away from reality. The local young people who need affordable apartments or houses should look to the real source of the housing problem -- the Republicans who formerly ran Town Hall. Linda Kabot, the new Supervisor, and the new Town Board need to address these political facts.
The Latinos, legal as well as illegal, many of whom have large extended families who work hard – were just better able to afford the private housing stock by living together. They also paid their rent on time because they respect the law and are fearful of local law enforcement. They’re not crazy. They understand a police state when they see it. But, with the hue and cry for civil rights in America, they did not expect Fascism.

Since the Town of Southampton has long been an “old boy’s network” the new Town Board that includes Nancy Graboski, Anna Throne-Holst and Linda Kabot is a new government of women who understand the issues.
Let’s see how they tackle the problems of real and perceived racism and the rights of those who pay the bills but don’t get to vote.