Towns Get Tougher on Illegal Housing
Monday, September 3, 2007
SPECIAL TO THE RECORD
North Jersey towns are taking a number of approaches to root out illegal housing, but safety for renters is a common thrust behind the reform effort.
Some measures have steepened fines for landlords who allow unsafe conditions. Others have required new tenants to register with municipalities.
Under a new law requiring landlords in Garfield to submit to an inspection every time they bring in a new tenant, inspectors there have found violations that might have otherwise gone unnoticed, City Manager Thomas Duch said.
"If you have a tremendous turnover in your building, we may be there more than once a year," Duch said.
Officials in towns where these kinds of ordinances have been adopted say the measures were needed to halt a dangerous problem that was becoming worse.
A pre-dawn fire in an illegally converted home in Englewood last August killed two tenants trapped in the basement. The homeowners had removed a stairwell connecting the basement and the first floor, turning it into a deathtrap, authorities said at the time.
But Shai Goldstein, executive director of the New Jersey Immigration Policy Network, which advocates for immigrant rights, said he worries some safe-housing ordinances, while meaning well, might infringe on privacy rights and lead to situations that could intimidate immigrants.
"The entire emphasis on ordinances is misplaced," Goldstein said. "If you want to focus on housing, focus on making it more affordable."
Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes acknowledged there's a fine line between enforcing codes and protecting rights, but he believes the city struck a balance after the deadly fire prompted a review of its safe-housing rules.
"We ratcheted up enforcement and made sure that it ran concurrent with the protection of residents' civil rights," he said.
Still, municipal officials should not have to venture into this "uncharted territory" without guidance from the federal government, whose officials desperately need to set national standards when it comes to illegal immigrants and their rights, Wildes said.
Though some of the towns with revised housing rules have overcrowded homes due to an influx of illegal immigrants, others do not.
Many illegal housing situations found in West Paterson occur when homeowners rent out rooms in basements to people they know and want to help by providing them with an affordable place to live, said Felix Esposito, the borough's construction official.
And not all illegal apartments are considered safety hazards. Often, basement and attic apartments violate zoning rules specifying the maximum number of units allowed in a house.
A substantial number of overcrowded homes in a town can add children to already packed classrooms and create nightmare parking situations on residential streets, Esposito said.
With these consequences and others in mind, West Paterson council members adopted an ordinance in June banning kitchens and bathrooms in attics. Those living in basements in West Paterson must have full access rights to the rest of the house.
The borough has also introduced steeper fines for code-violating landlords -- a mandatory $1,500 slap for first time offenses, $5,000 for the second.
Totowa, Palisades Park , Fairview, Leonia, Bogota and Garfield have enacted similar measures.
As part of an ordinance adopted by the Bloomingdale Borough Council in November, landlords must have their rental units inspected annually to obtain a mandatory permit. Landlords must also submit a sketch of each unit's floor plan, according to the ordinance.
William Nutto, a 77-year-old Bloomingdale resident who rents out seven apartments there, said the new inspection and the associated fees are excessive.
Rental units also undergo state inspections every five years, and a new Continued Certificate of Occupancy is necessary every time a tenant moves out.
"I understand you have absentee landlords that allow the living conditions to become unsafe, but no other towns have three different inspections," Nutto said.
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