Landlords take heat on illegal dwellings
Towns start looking harder for lawbreakers
By KAREN KELLER and JENNIFER CUNNINGHAM, STAFF WRITER | 08/22/08 02:01 AM
[image]Passaic is cracking down on illegal dwellings, with inspectors hitting city streets day and night.
Paul Ramirez says that a hefty mortgage payment each month has forced him to rent out rooms in his Hope Avenue property, which he purchased two years ago in Passaic. (MICHAEL KARAS/Staff Photographer)
Clifton reports an uptick in the number of illegally rented attics and cellars. In January, North Haledon landlords of two-family houses will have to register tenants' names with the city.
For three municipalities, there are three different ways officials are taking a closer look at illegal dwellings. But the message is the same: Landlords, beware. Officials say they're intent on protecting tenants' safety.
Illegal dwellings often lack bathrooms or kitchens and create fire hazards by restricting tenants' access to exits.
In the event of a fire or accident, emergency personnel need to know just how many people are living in a home, and where, officials said.
Fires can start easily near boilers in cellars or from a hot plate. In August 2006, two Englewood men living in what officials said was an illegal basement dwelling died in a fire.
Aside from safety, illegal dwellings stretch municipal services, schools and strain infrastructure -- leaving residents in legal properties to pick up the tax and utility tabs.
In Passaic -- a starter community for new immigrants -- cash-hungry landlords have always rented attics and cellars without permits to people willing to squeeze into small spaces, officials said. But acting Mayor Gary Schaer, who took the helm in May, is intensifying the hunt.
It's part of the mayor's larger goal of improving the quality of life in the city, he said. In addition to checking for illegal apartments, inspectors issue summonses for property maintenance violations such as uncut lawns.
"The purpose here is not revenue enhancement. It's to put a clean, fresh face on the city," Schaer said.
Two inspectors take turns going out four nights a week, and twice a week during the day, said Angelo Pallotto, an inspector. That's up from roughly two nights a week in years past, and once every two months during the day.
The daytime inspections are carried out as part of the city's "Clean Sweeps" project, in which a team of a dozen other city inspectors, including fire, public works and health officials, pick several blocks to inspect during a three-hour period, rotating each week among the city's four wards. The city started "Clean Sweeps" once every two months in 2001 and now conducts them twice a week.
Pallotto said many landlords say they are unaware of the law. Offenders' common explanation is that when they bought the dwelling, their real estate agent or bank told them they could rent out every room, Pallotto said.
"When you buy the property, the bank says it's OK," said Paul Ramirez, 40, a landlord who also owns a mechanics shop. "You have to rent all the space you have."
He said he bought a single-family house on Hope Avenue two years ago and received a violation notice in June for renting the attic and cellar space illegally. He said it's impossible to pay his $5,000 mortgage without renting every room.
"How are you going to pay for a property for that much [monthly overhead]?" he asked. Ramirez's father, a signatory on papers for the house, pleaded guilty in municipal court Thursday to the offenses. The pair now owe the city roughly $2,000 in fines.
In Clifton, the economy, property taxes and the mortgage crisis have led to an increase in the number of illegal dwellings found in the city, local officials said. The city's six code enforcement inspectors found 70 illegal dwellings in Clifton from January to June, up from the 43 found during the same time last year, public records show.
"I think it's more of the mortgage crisis than anything else," Sam DeGrose, head of the city's code enforcement department. "There's a lot of foreclosures in town."
DeGrose said that as many homeowners refinance their adjustable mortgage rates, they are forced to find new ways to pay their mortgage every month.
"We found two-family houses where the owner moved to the basement and rented out the two apartments, just to pay the mortgage," DeGrose said.
Inspectors look for multiple doorbells, air-conditioning units in attics and cellars, multiple names of tenants on mailboxes and people moving in and out, said Mayor James Anzaldi. But tips from neighbors are the best indicator, he said.
In North Haledon, a town with relatively few renters, the borough hasn't had a problem with illegal housing, but wants to be proactive, said Mayor Randy George. Next year, the borough is undergoing a tax reassessment, the first in decades, and the city is taking advantage of the timing to begin a tenants' registry, George said.
Landlords of every two-family house will have to pay $50 annually to register names of tenants. North Haledon has 241 two-family houses, George said.
"It's a hot-button issue that we've been reading about in other towns, and we just want to make sure we're ahead of it," he said. "It's not for money but for public safety."
Thursday mornings in Passaic are landlords' day in court.
Outside the courtroom, Pallotto, the inspector, clutched files on 10 cases in which he'd testified. Seven were for illegal dwellings. His files contained photos. One showed an attic bedroom with an unmade bed near a tiny window that looked out onto a roof next door. In the room was a Winnie the Pooh teddy bear.
"A picture is worth a thousand words," Pallotto said.
Posted by Dominick on 08/25/08 12:18 AM:
I said it before and I'll say it again : If the towns are serious about cracking down on illegal dwellings, offer a reward for information. Clifton does this for people who inform about students illegally attending city schools and it has worked incredibly. By the way, Mayor George is full of it. It's always about the money with these crooks. How does paying $50 make the public safer?