Earlier this year, one of our local fire departments was dispatched to a possible structure fire. When the Fire Chief signed in service, the dispatcher advised him that they had received several calls reporting heavy smoke coming from what they had listed as a one-family home.
When the Chief got on the scene, he reported a working fire on the second floor and in the attic. He ordered the first line through the front door, utilizing the interior stairwell to get to the upper levels. As the first crew went through the front door, they found that the rooms that would normally be set up and furnished as a living room, dining room, etc., had been changed to a rooming house with multiple locked individual rooms. The same applied to the basement, second floor and attic. So instead of an occupancy consisting of a typical family unit, the firefighters faced an unusually heavy occupancy load of over two dozen people and needed to force every locked door, except for the shared kitchen and bathrooms.
Our county has seen a tremendous proliferation of these illegal conversions, where absentee landlords charge $500 per month on average per single room. There are no leases, and many former one-family homes bring in well over $100,000 per year in cash.
The problem with these scenarios is that many times when you look at these buildings from the street, they do not look much different from when they were legally occupied for one or two families. However, if one looks closely, there are usually signs indicating illegal conversions such as air conditioning units installed in the windows of attics, basements, garages, etc., multiple satellite dishes or cable hook-ups, entrance doors to basements where garage doors used to be, numerous vehicles parked in driveways and front lawns, several garbage pails, usually overflowing, curtains in the windows of normally non-habitable space, and numerous young men hanging out outside, particularly during the warm weather.
Our local volunteer fire departments have started reaching out to civic groups, working with residents to ferret out these illegal conversions. Residents are taught what to look for and frequently will talk to other residents who are living in legal buildings located near the illegally occupied buildings. These law-biding residents are usually angry about the conditions in their neighborhood and will give valuable information regarding the illegal use and frequently the name and contact information for the illegal landlord. We then show them how to report the possible violations to the proper authorities.
Unfortunately, we have found in some communities, there is an appalling lack of enforcement, with almost no fines or penalties levied. With little or no deterrent, the absentee slum landlords are purchasing legal buildings and converting them as just described at a frenetic pace, placing the occupants and our firefighters in extreme danger. In next month's column, I will explain how our county government has taken strong action to provide the needed deterrent.