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Residents Speak Out Against Long Island Town's Proposed ‘Traditional Families’ Rental Ordinance

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

Riverhead officials have proposed a change to town rental code that would require landlords to only rent to tenants who resemble a “traditional family.” Fair housing advocates urged them to reject the proposal at a public hearing this week.

A single mom of three, who only identified herself as Edelmira, lives with other moms and their kids in Riverhead. She testified at the hearing through an interpreter.

“Single mothers, like I am, can’t have a regular house to live with our children, so it is important to share the rent with others,” she said. “Those people become family to us.”

Her situation would not be considered legal under the proposed code change. Advocates said other at-risk communities include LGTBQ tenants, foster families, young people with roommates, and people living on fixed incomes, like seniors and people with disabilities.

The town would mandate that only those who share household expenses, engage in common activities like cooking together, and have evidence of “permanent and stable occupancy”would be considered a traditional family. Evidence of such occupancy would include living together for more than a year, jointly owning household items, having kids enrolled in school or having a driver's license. The town has had a definition of what a traditional family is in its code for years.

Advocates said the proposed code change is a violation of the Fair Housing Act, which, regardless of intent, outlaws housing discrmination based on race, gender, sexuality, and other protected classes. They said the “discriminatory” code change would be used by landlords to alienate certain people. According to Census data, 33.6% of Black and 18.3% of the Latinx populations in Riverhead live below the poverty line, compared to 5% of white residents.

Minerva Perez, the executive director of Organización Latino-Americana, said the changes could be detrimental to communities of color, who are set to be facing evictions when the federal and state motourtrims expire.

“You're laying brick upon brick upon brick of instability, of fear, of danger on the children and the most vulnerable people of your community,” she said.

Ananias Canel, a local advocate for rural workers, immigrated to Riverhead when he was 17. He recalled having to split the $3,000 a month rent eight-ways with other immigrant workers. As they would not be considered a family, this arrangement would also not be possible under the new code.

“I love these guys like a family,” he said. “For me, they're my brothers now.”

Greta Wharton, the executive director of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, said her organization provides a match-up service to those looking for housing in need of a roommate, another dynamic that would not be allowed.

Town officials said the code is not meant to be discriminatory, but to protect residents from unsafe housing conditions. Councilmember Timothy Hubbard, a Republican, said he is open to setting restrictions on the amount of people that can occupy a house based on square footage, rather than if they are family.

“If you look at the pictures and see the things that I've seen as a police officer in my career, and things I’ve seen coming through our code enforcement, you would shake your head and say, ‘My God town, why haven't you done something,’” he said.

Critics said the code change would not necessarily prevent overcrowding. Father Geraldo Romo, a local Episcopalian reverend, said he knows of many immigrant families cramped into tight quarters. They are “a family of seven children, mom and dad” in a one-bedroom house, he said.

Councilmember Catherine Kent, a Democrat, said she wants to work with fair housing advocates to ensure housing for families “in all different configurations.”

“I think when we talk about what's just a traditional family, and what isn't, we send the wrong message to our youth,” she said.

Leah is a former intern with WSHU Public Radio.