The Keep Rockland Beautiful Code Enforcement Task Force focused on two big housing issues in the county at its annual symposium Wednesday morning.
The Sixth Annual Code Enforcement Symposium was held at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, and officials from the county spoke on the two issues: people abandoning their homes and single room occupancies being converted so multiple families can live there.
“We only hold the symposium when we feel like an issue has gotten bad enough that we need to start talking about how to fix it,” said Orangetown Highway Department Supervisor Jim Dean, a Keep Rockland Beautiful board member who moderated the event. “In this case we felt like we had two issues to discuss.”
Keep Rockland Beautiful is a non-profit organization that works to improve the quality of life and aesthetics of the county. They do this through partnering with people in various positions, and Dean said they really wanted to team up with Gordon Wren, director of Rockland County Fire and Emergency Services, on the single occupancy home issue.
“We knew he had a passion for this and really wanted to bring change,” Dean said.
Wren spoke about what he called a “very serious problem in Rockland County.” He said people buy the homes, put in tiny cubicles for separate occupants, some he’s seen smaller than jail cells, and charge low rent for them. Wren said the owners of the homes can make upwards of $100,000 by packing families into houses and apartments.
“I wonder how human beings can put other human beings in that position,” he said.
Wren added that since that’s illegal, the owners of the home take shortcuts with many codes in the home so as to not get caught. The real problems start in these houses if they catch on fire, as the firefighters going to the home are expecting just one family inside of a standard home or apartment. Wren said that if they run into a burning building and see a bunch of locked doors to rooms that aren’t supposed to be, that’s when things can get really bad, for the occupants and the firefighters.
He also noted that these houses usually aren’t kept up appearance-wise, so the grass isn’t cut and the because so many people live there their lawns can look like parking lots. This, Wren said, can have a snowball effect, where people living near those houses might want to leave the neighborhood, and more people will buy those houses and cover them as well.
Part of Wren’s solution is to heavily increase the fines to the owners of the house. If someone is making more than $100,000 a year on a house, Wren said, a $250 fine isn’t going to hurt them much. He wants fines in the thousands, money he said that could be used to pay for overtime or for a part-time inspector to help rid the county of more of these illegal residences.
Jeffrey Millman, deputy town attorney and zoning administrator for the Town of Clarkstown, also spoke about the issue. He talked about how to figure out if a single occupancy residence might actually house multiple families. He said one way to tell is to look at how much garbage the residence puts out, and if it looks suspiciously high for what’s supposed to just be one family. Another way is to see how many cars are parked outside the house on a regular basis. Millman also said you can talk to workers at the post office, and see how many people have mail addressed to them at one address.
He noted that some people who live in these houses, though, don’t know they’re in illegal living conditions.
“The first directive should be voluntary compliance,” he said. “Educate them, talk to them and tell them what’s wrong.”
Millman said you can knock on the door to one of the homes, and if someone who lives there invites you, that’s another way to tell. During his presentation, Wren showed a video from CBS News that aired Sept. 25 of this year about a crackdown on similar illegal housing in the Bronx. The video showed police officers looking up listings of apartments, and checking ones that looked suspicious. They would send an undercover cop to investigate and pretend to be interested in renting. The video stated they had an 86 percent success rate in finding illegal housing when doing that.
Also speaking at the event where Andy Stewart, executive director of Keep Rockland Beautiful, Lou Falco, chief of the Sheriff’s Department’s Police Division, Joel Epstein, code and zoning enforcement officer and community liaison for the Town of Clarkstown, and Clarkstown Town Justice Howard Gerber.