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Foes, supporters weigh in on Amherst plan to redefine 'family' in housing regulations

Amherst officials are continuing to discuss changing how a family is defined in the town zoning code to make it easier to restrict homes where large groups of students and other renters live.

The proposed changes are welcomed by residents in the Eggertsville neighborhood near the University at Buffalo South Campus who complain about "slumlords" converting single-family homes into boarding houses for four, five or more student tenants.

But critics say the proposal is unconstitutional because it unfairly treats unrelated people living in a home differently from people who are related, and they said it could make life harder for student renters, operators of group homes and people who rent out their homes through Airbnb.

Under the proposed change, four or more people are barred from living together in a single-family home unless they are related by blood, marriage, adoption or legal foster relationship or they engage in shared household activities or otherwise demonstrate permanence and stability.

Currently, the town restricts unrelated people from living together in a single-family home unless their living arrangements "are the functional equivalent of a traditional family," but the code doesn't specify the number of occupants.

The Planning Board recommended approval of the zoning code change in August, but the Town Board didn't schedule a public hearing on the proposal until Tuesday. The board tabled the zoning code change on Tuesday night, primarily to give the three new members of the Town Board more time to study the matter with the town attorney and the building commissioner.

Town of Amherst is redefining what 'family' means

Town Attorney Stanley J. Sliwa said Tuesday that the goal of updating the language is to provide a "workable, objective definition to the term 'family' " to assist in building code enforcement. Also, the town wants to clarify the legality of certain types of group homes – where one or two employees oversee care for developmentally disabled adults in a converted single-family or double home.

"That is the prime aim of the legislation," Sliwa said.

Amherst's zoning code now is "vague and open to interpretation," and one building inspector can look at a situation differently than another, Sliwa said.

The proposed change states four or more unrelated people living together aren't equivalent to a family unless they can prove shared household activities or permanence, for example, through common ownership of furniture and appliances, the presence of minor children or using the same address when they register to vote.

A proponent of the proposed change who spoke at Tuesday's public hearing said it would help rein in cases where unscrupulous landlords rent out poorly maintained homes to large groups of students, often converting rooms in basements or garages to additional bedrooms.

"We have a cancer growing in our neighborhood of slumlords," said Mark Rivard, of Hendricks Boulevard, in Eggertsville. "Please do what you can to regulate it somehow."

One opponent who spoke at the hearing was Nick Falkides, whose family owns a number of rental properties near the UB North Campus that cater to students.

Falkides called the proposal "constitutionally defective" and said approving the changes likely would lead to litigation against the town.

He said it was unfair to say up to 12 related people can live together, but only three unrelated people could do so. The law discriminates based on family, marital, age and in some cases disability status, all of which are prohibited, Falkides said.

Falkides said he thinks the changes target Airbnb, the online service that allows people to rent out their homes to travelers, and he said he has no problem with that. But he called the proposal "overbroad" and asked the Town Board to delay acting on it.

Sliwa after the meeting said the proposal isn't aimed at Airbnb, which already is subject to restrictions on its operation in the town. Homeowners are allowed to have up to two boarders, but in certain zoning districts the homeowner must remain home during the rental period, something that doesn't always occur during an Airbnb rental arrangement.

Falkides didn't identify himself as a property owner during his initial remarks. When Sliwa returned to the lectern after the public hearing he highlighted that omission, saying, "he's one of the landlords at issue."

Falkides, during a later public expression period, said properties owned by his family have no violations of any kind and he said he felt improperly singled out by the town attorney.

"I agree we should refrain from discussing any individual's properties," Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa said.

Kulpa said data show that an increase in the rental or transient population in a neighborhood tends to degrade the housing stock.

"That's something certainly that we have to address, specifically in the Eggertsville area," Kulpa said, but without creating problems for group homes or bed and breakfasts.

Kulpa and the Town Board then tabled the proposed changes.

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