Written by Betsy Abraham Wednesday, 05 February 2014 00:00
Residents, school board express illegal housing concerns
The town of North Hempstead decided to hold off on a decision on the New Cassel Urban Overlay District, saying it will revisit the issue during their April meeting after further study on the effectiveness of the restrictions in stopping illegal housing.
At the town meeting held on Jan. 28, New Cassel residents as well as school board officials voiced their opinion on proposed legislation which would ease restrictions on residential properties in New Cassel. The main concern for many who came up to the microphone was that lifting the restrictions would only lead to more illegal housing in New Cassel.
Donna Wallace has lived in New Cassel 55 years and says she was not in favor of the legislation because she has seen her block taken over by landlords illegally renting single family homes.
“I can appreciate people want to add a bathroom or entrance to the basement, but unfortunately in New Cassel, houses have literally been cut up. You have a single family home but it has three families,” said Wallace. “It’s getting to the point where homeowners who are paying taxes are being infringed upon and there’s no one monitoring the situation.”
The New Cassel Urban Overlay was put into place in 2006 as a way to deter illegal housing. District 2 Councilwoman Viviana Russell proposed easing the restrictions to make the town code more uniform, as the New Cassel Urban Overlay District is the only area in the town with these restrictions in place.
“These guidelines were put in place to quell the issue we had with illegal housing, but there hasn’t been any proof that these measures in and of themselves have been useful,” Russell said. “If this was a true measure of combating illegal housing, it should be done town wide, not just in one particular area.”
If the legislation to ease the restrictions was passed, the zoning code would still apply, which would mean residents still could not have a bedroom or kitchen facilities in their basement. If passed, homeowners could make modifications to their basement such as having a room larger than six feet in any direction, having a bathroom with three or more fixtures and having an outside entrance to the basement.
Westbury School District superintendent Dr. Mary Lagnado expressed her concern that easing the restrictions would result in more illegally rented basement apartments, and in turn, more students in the already overcrowded district. Enrollment in the district has grown almost 20 percent, or by almost 5,000 students, in the past five years. If the trend continues, Lagnado said that the estimated growth over the next five years will be 5,938 more students, a three percent growth each year.
“We cannot afford to have restrictions reduced or eliminated with class sizes increasing. The only benefit would be to the out-of-town owners of the properties, not to the students,” Lagnado said. “If you (lift the restrictions) you’re promoting illegal housing, and encouraging it. It’s just going to increase and intensify it.”
Westbury School Board trustee John Simpkins said that with 85 percent of the Westbury School District’s student population coming from New Cassel, there was no way the district could accommodate any more students that might join the district because their families were renting illegal basement apartments.
“One merely visit our schools and see how hard our teachers and administrators are working with deteriorating conditions, because a building meant to house a certain number of students is dealing with 33 percent more,” Simpkins said. “Everyone is looking for help and it seems that this easing is only going to have a negative impact on our students and their ability to achieve.”
Several community members echoed the school district’s concerns, saying they were worried that easing the restrictions would cause more problems for the school district and Westbury’s children.
“The schools are a true measure of the problems, not because the children are bad but because they’re not being taken care of,” said one Westbury resident.
“The backbone of the community is the school district, when the school district suffers, it affects the community, town, the entire environment,” said New Cassel resident Corey Alleyne. “Please don’t be shortsighted. We’re looking at the future and the future is always going to be our children.”
At the end of the meeting, the board closed the public hearing and decided to continue discussion on the matter at the board meeting on April 1.