During a meeting held the night of Wednesday, December 7, the Henrietta Town Board unanimously voted to reword the town’s legal definition of family. The new definition allows Henrietta to enforce its code, and effectively bans students from living together with three or more unrelated housemates in single-family neighborhoods.
The law was passed in response to resident complaints that landlord Michael Spaan was packing students into 22 buildings in the Preserve neighborhood, located southwest of RIT. Residents complained of loud parties, dangerous driving and lewd acts.
The town and RIT’s Student Government (SG) moved quickly to assure students concerned about the immediate effects of the law, which seemed to be few.
Speaking before the vote, Henrietta Supervisor Michael Yudelson said the Board has no intention to force students to move in the middle of a school year. He repeated that assurance in a letter addressed to the RIT student body.
Shortly after the vote, SG Vice President Phil Amsler, who attended the meeting, sent an email to SG senators, asking them to help keep the RIT community calm.
“The rumor mill will be in overdrive once word becomes widespread,” he said. “NO ONE living on a lease signed before today will be evicted or forced to leave their residence while on their current lease.”
However, the long-term impacts, amid potential legal and political challenges to the law, were not yet clear.
Several hundred students will be in violation of the law when it takes effect, according to an estimate by RIT’s Office of State & Local Government Relations.
Dawn Soufleris, assistant vice president of Student Affairs, chairs a task-force set up to address resident complaints. “I don’t know [what the impact will be],” Soufleris said. “It’s going to be interesting to see how the town is going to enforce this.”
Yudelson, the town supervisor, said the Board tried to find a balanced response that considered the needs of residents, students and the school. The next step is to develop procedures to enforce the law to address the most egregious violations.
The intent is to target problem landlords, not students, said Town Attorney Daniel Mastrella. “This is not something that is aimed to be punitive,” he said.
The law had to be reworded to be enforceable, said Mastrella. Sections of the town code hadn’t been enforced for years, because the prior definition of family — one or more people related by blood, marriage or legal adoption; plus one or two unrelated boarders — wasn’t broad enough for modern courts, which have held that there is no legitimate reason for local governments to exclude other groups that function as a family.
The new law considers any three people living together a family, and then, for four or more residents, applies a set of criteria to determine if they constitute the “functional equivalent of a traditional family.” The criteria include the group’s structure, stability and whether they share expenses.
The town inspector has discretion in applying those criteria, and there’s an appeals process for those who want to contest a determination. But year-to-year students wouldn’t qualify.
The law is designed to pass legal challenge, says Mastrella, and similar laws have held up in courts elsewhere in the state, including an identical law in Brockport.
But at a forum last month, Mark Greisberger, an attorney who claimed to represent Spaan, disputed this. “I’ve read the same cases as Mr. Mastrella,” the town’s minutes quote him as saying. “They are cases that say what you’re proposing is not, per se, unconstitutional. We get to do hand-to-hand combat on every single case, as you try to enforce it.”
Besides legal challenges, which Amsler thinks could keep the law tied up for months or years, the SG leadership is contemplating challenging the law politically.
“We are in damage control mode, but the fight is not over,” Amsler wrote in his email to Senate. It may be SG’s role to “have students register and vote in Henrietta to elect different officials.”
Assuming the law holds, SG is working to educate students on the implications, and hopes to stop students from signing illegal leases. On Tuesday, December 13, SG attorney Paul Vick will hold a session on student’s legal rights, and he will look at student leases. The time and location were not immediately available.