Sunday, January 28, 2007

Overcrowding - Courier - Towns consider tougher rules

Published in the Courier News, Sunday, January 28, 2007

Rental housing under scrutiny
Central Jersey towns consider tougher rules for overcrowding

Staff Writer

In the battle against illegal overcrowding in rental properties -- often called "stacking" -- some Central Jersey communities are considering tougher laws, some of which require the registration of individual tenants and their landlords.

That's the case in Raritan Borough, for instance, where officials might require landlords to certify the number of tenants in each rental unit, Mayor Jo-Ann Liptak said.

"We're going after the landlord who thinks he can exploit these people," Liptak said of tenants who are stacked.

Flemington, North Plainfield and Bernards also are considering stronger laws, although not everyone thinks they are necessary.

"I think there are enough regulations that adequately regulate the situation already," said William Johnson, municipal prosecutor in Somerville, where last week a landlord was fined for allowing a tenant to sleep in a basement.

Tougher laws might also stir the debate over whether overcrowding laws inordinately penalize Hispanics.

"Most of these ordinances go substantially beyond traditional health codes," said Stuart Deutsch, dean of Rutgers School of Law in Newark. "They are less about housing and more about who is being housed."

The ordinances, he said, come during this "very hot debate right now about immigration, especially related to Hispanics."

Her desire for a stiffer law, Liptak said, is not anti-immigrant. "It's anti-greedy landlord."

What inspections uncover

When housing inspectors uncover an overcrowded rental property, they often find other illegal -- and potentially deadly -- conditions such as:
  • Full-sized refrigerators and hot plates in bedrooms
  • Electrical cords strung like spiderwebs
  • Locks bolting every door
  • Mattresses in the kitchen and sleeping quarters in a basement or attic with only one way out in case of a fire.
Barry Van Horn, Somerville's fire marshal, has seen children sleeping in closets or in the bottom drawer of a dresser. Once, a woman without heat used coals under her mattress.

"You can't appreciate what this is all about until you see the desperation in their faces," Van Horn said.

Because of the widespread nature of the issue, the New Jersey League of Municipalities is collecting ordinances that deal with residential overcrowding, said Bill Dressel, the league's executive director.

Last week, Dressel said, the league started a immigration committee, and overcrowding will be one of the issues studied.

"There are quality-of-life issues both for the immigrant population and concerns for the residents who are there," Dressel said.

In North Plainfield -- with 5,000 rental units -- Council President Skip Stabile said a discussion about overcrowding laws, begun in 2006, might be resumed this year.

"You're really looking for the number of occupants," Stabile said.

The suggestion to study codes came from from North Plainfield Housing Director Jim Rodino, who wants to inspect an apartment when rented to a new tenant.

Now, municipal officials may inspect a property only when it is sold.

Support from a landlord

Jeffrey Allegar, a Raritan Borough landlord who owns a two-family property, supports overcrowding ordinances. He is required to register as a landlord, and his property is inspected annually.

"That's a good thing," Allegar said. "You're in there, you see are what doing. It's good for everybody. It saves a lot of hassles."

"The burden should be on the town," he said. "If they make you register, they should check up, too," he said.

Not every community dealing with overcrowding laws is making them tougher.

When Bernardsville wanted to make sure its inspection practices were not discriminatory, it looked to Bound Brook, said Elaine Broyles, Bernardsville's Zoning Code Enforcement official, and adopted Bound Brook's revised guidelines.

In 2004, Bound Brook agreed to reform its inspection practices -- which the U.S. Justice Department said were designed to drive out Hispanics -- in order to end a federal lawsuit.

Among other reforms, Bound Brook translated its property maintenance code into Spanish, gave residents 24 hours notice to correct an illegal living situation and hired a bilingual coordinator to give residents information about housing, property maintenance and redevelopment.

On May 3, 2006, the Plainfield City Council repealed a 2004 overcrowding ordinance after determining that existing ordinances accomplished the same purpose.

When initially adopted, some residents felt it unfairly targeted the city's Hispanic population. The law had required the name and address of the building's owner, managing agent and superintendent; the number of sleeping rooms in each unit and a floor plan; and the number of people living in each unit, including children older than 2.

Kara L. Richardson can be reached at (908)707-3186 or Staff writers Brad Wadlow, Christa Segalini and Chad Hemenway contributed to this report.

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Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.