In prior columns I have described in excruciating detail the conditions our firefighters are discovering and forced to work under when they are dispatched for working fires at illegally converted buildings. Many of these illegal conversions are former one-family dwellings that have been converted to single room occupancies or rooming houses. Our firefighters are frequently shocked to find people living in numerous tiny rooms, including cellars, attics, garages and multiple floors. In many cases small children are living in these conditions with no second means of egress when a fire occurs.
These residents, many of whom do not appear to be citizens, indicate that they are paying anywhere from $350 to $650 per month. We have found the average payment to be $500 per month, with the tenants paying utilities. The tenants also indicate that they are expected to make their payments weekly and it must be in cash. Some of our fire inspectors have interviewed the tenants and found that when they add up all the cash income, that a former one-family home, converted without building permits, inspections, etc. are generating over $150,000 per year.
There is a tremendous need for this type of housing, and we have seen an epidemic of buildings being illegally converted. In several of our municipalities, the lack of enforcement through heavy fines and other penalties has created this epidemic and allowed it to flourish. Without a deterrent, there is little that can be done that will discourage the slum landlords from putting our firefighters and their tenants in great danger.
We filed numerous complaints with the New York State Codes Division, whose staff have been conducting investigations for years now - and yet the proliferation continues unabated.
The Rockland County Executive, Ed Day, recognizes the seriousness of the situation and put together a team that will have county-wide authority to inspect, conduct hearings, and enforce substantial penalties on these lucrative, but illegal, property owners. What follows are his comments from a press conference conducted last month.
Thank you Health Commissioner Dr. Patricia Ruppert for your creativity and leadership in bringing this critical initiative to fruition. Your dedication to public health and safety is unparalleled in county government. My administration has a steadfast commitment to address quality of life issues in Rockland County.
Stemming the tide of unsafe, illegal housing and overcrowding is paramount to ensuring the health and safety of our people. Today, we fire the first salvo in a well-orchestrated battle against exploitive absentee landlords and property owners who put lives at risk. We call it the Rockland Code Initiative.
From Spring Valley to Stony Point, Jerry-built rooms and shared extension cords have become the norm for thousands of tenants, most on the lower rung of the socioeconomic ladder. This is not unique to Rockland County.
All across the region, there’s a growing problem with millions of undocumented immigrants, many living in illegal housing provided by unscrupulous landlords who receive cash for rentals. Some property owners think that violating health and building codes is no big deal. Some think that chopping up apartments and herding humans like cattle is the cost of doing business. Well, think again.
The Rockland Codes Initiative will utilize the sweeping powers of the county’s sanitary code to inspect dwellings and issue violations, allowing us to fight back against those who think it’s no big deal to take advantage of those who have little voice. Dr. Ruppert will detail the specifics of the program, but let it be known that we plan to whack the bad guys where it hurts: in the wallet.
The house behind me, 76 Fairview Avenue, has racked up 19 critical sanitary code violations. Currently, the law allows for a maximum fine of $2000 per day for each violation. This means the property owner is facing a possible fine of at least $38,000. They say money talks.
Now that we are talking about serious monetary fines, we know the bad guys will listen and respond. We’ve made it easy to file a confidential complaint about any property in the county. We’ve also made the process more transparent and more costly for the offenders. We fully expect the program will be self-funding through aggressive enforcement.
We all know that firefighting is dangerous enough, but it should not be made more dangerous when property owners, motivated by greed, illegally carve up apartments. We cannot alow a child or one of Rockland County’s bravest to die in a converted attic or hidden stairwell.
The Rockland Codes Initiative is the result of hundred of hours of planning by Commissioner Ruppert, County Attorney Thomas Humback and my executive team. I commend my people for working overtime to develop a comprehensive strategy to stop the madness.
We’ve also engaged with Governor Cuomo’s office and Orange and Rockland Utilities to help us in our efforts to provide safe conditions for our residents and first responders.
So as long as I’m County Executive, the illegal housing business will no longer be business as usual. In Rockland, if we’re going to respect each other, we need to start with a mutual respect for our laws. Thank you.
I highly commend County Executive Day for his aggressive approach to this deadly, serious situation. His actions, along with the Health Commissioner/Inspectors, and the staff of the other agencies with whom they will collaborate should deliver the strong deterrent that is needed and will undoubtedly save lives.