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July 15, 2010

 

Landlords set to file occupancy suit

City law limiting tenants to no more than 3 unrelated people seen as unconstitutional

By HOLDEN B. SLATTERY
Staff Reporter
hslattery@cortlandstandard.net

A member of a local landlords association said the group will file a lawsuit by the end of the week over a long-standing city law that limits occupancy to no more than three unrelated people in a rental unit.
Landlord Jerry Ruggiero said Wednesday that the group also wants to influence city officials to replace the three-unrelated law. He said he doubts they can replace the law before the judge makes a ruling on it. Implementing new laws would prevent a possible expansion of student housing in the aftermath of the decision, he said.
The three-unrelated law has rarely been enforced during its 30-year existence, city officials said.
Members of the Hill Association, which consists of homeowners who live near SUNY Cortland, want to see it enforced and think the new rental permit law will help city officials to enforce it. Ruggiero says the law is unconstitutional in the way it defines a family.
Mayor Susan Feiszli, who said last week that she thinks the city will lose the lawsuit, is hoping to create an overlay district and make zoning changes to regulate the number of tenants per apartment in residential and mixed neighborhoods. She said she wants to broker a compromise between the Apartment Owners Association and the Hill Association.
The two groups are planning a joint meeting for July 26. The time and place have not been finalized.
Katy Silliman, a member of the Hill Association, said the meeting will have three representatives of the Hill Association and three representative from the Apartment Owners Association. Richard Peagler, a SUNY Cortland professor, will mediate during the meeting.
The meeting will be open to the public, but only the six representatives and the mediator will be allowed to speak, Silliman said.
“Things have been kind of inflamed, so we just want to bring it down and listen to people,” Silliman said.
Ruggiero said he is pleased with Feiszli’s willingness to create laws to replace the three-unrelated law. But the landlords association will still file the lawsuit it has been planning for months, following the advice of its attorney, he said.
“Even if the city says ‘We want to settle this,’ we still have to file the lawsuit,” Ruggiero said. “We still have to file the lawsuit to preserve our rights just in case something happened.”
Feiszli said she wants to assemble a committee to look at changing the city’s zoning regulations and creating an overlay district.
She said that Mira Hesberg, a land use attorney who used to work for Thoma Development Consultants, has offered to serve on the committee and work on rezoning the city at no cost to the city.
Feiszli said she supports an idea proposed by attorney Don Cheney of the firm Cheney and Blair in Skaneateles. Cheney advised the city’s Housing Committee to regulate the amount of tenants in rental units using a combination of square footage and a maximum amount of tenants that would be based on the zoning regulations in particular neighborhoods.
Ruggiero said that if the three-unrelated law is overturned in court, the city will have no mechanism to regulate the number of tenants in properties. Landlords will be able to buy houses, convert them to rental properties and rent to as many students as they can allow under fire and building codes.
Ruggiero said most landlords do not want to see an expansion of student housing, but that out-of-town landlords could begin buying more properties, causing local landlords to have to buy more to keep pace.
Sharon Stevans, a Hamlin Street homeowner and a member of the Hill Association, said other members of the group have started a petition asking city officials to enforce the three-unrelated law and to vigorously defend any lawsuit against it.
Stevans said judges in some cities ruled that the three-unrelated law was constitutional, while they ruled it unconstitutional in other cities. She said the city probably has a 50 percent chance of winning the lawsuit.
If it loses, she said the council should listen to the judge’s ruling and then come up with new laws that are enforceable. She said she disapproves of Feiszli’s prediction that the city will lose.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for a city official to make comments like that in advance of a lawsuit,” she said.
Stevans said she does not support using solely square footage to determine the allowed number of tenants because landlords could convert rooms into bedrooms and “cram” tenants. Using square footage along with restrictions on tenants per unit could work, she said, but she thinks now is the wrong time for city officials to go back to the drawing table.
“We’re going to negotiate because you’re threatening a lawsuit — what kind of message does that send?” she said.
Stevans said she thinks landlords have always had more influence on city policies than homeowners, and she fears that city officials are caving under their pressure again.
“I think it’s high time for the mayor and the aldermen to listen to their constituents,” Stevans said. “The people who vote them in are the homeowners, and we don’t think we’re being listened to.”

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