On a hot, muggy summer evening, a resident, residing in a former one family home that
had been illegally converted to single room occupancy, experienced continuous failure of
her window unit air conditioner. She repeatedly went to the basement and reset the
breaker in the panel box. The last time she did this, she went back to her room and found
a working fire. She alerted all the other residents, all residing in single rooms throughout
the building and dialed 911.
The local volunteer fire department responded quickly and found heavy fire on the first
floor, extending up the stairway to the second floor. A fast knock-down took place.
However when the firefighters, as part of their overhaul, entered the attic, up a set of very
narrow stairs, they found mattresses all over the floor where several adult
men were residing.
This fire took place around 9:30 on a Saturday night. If the fire had taken place at 3:00
a.m., and the illegal attic was occupied, there is a very strong possibility that fatalities
would have taken place since there was no second means of egress.
A year or so later, the owner had repaired all the fire damage and rented out the premises,
Coming home from a fire late one night, I noticed a light coming from the tiny attic
window and filed another complaint.
Recently, I was driving with one of the inspectors and mentioned that I could not believe
that the attic was again occupied. The inspector stated, "I can guarantee that the attic is
I asked how he could make such a statement with such certainty and he informed
me that he had inspected it four days ago, and the landlord showed him the vacant space
and even installed a sheet of plywood, screwed into the door frame leading to
the attic. The inspector then invited me to go inside and take a look.
The tenants let us in and we climbed to the second floor. I noted the plywood with two
chairs up against it, but the screws had been removed. We pulled the plywood away and
entered the attic area. The attic space that had been totally vacant four days before, was
now occupied with single beds, twin beds and bunk beds for children.
The inspector, who is a dedicated professional, was shocked and angry at the landlord.
It appears that these types of scenarios take place on a regular basis- mostly in areas
where there is little or no vigorous enforcement program in place. In other words, if there
is no strong deterrent, financial or other; individuals will continue to place tenants and
firefighters in danger in order to collect rent money from illegally converted and
dangerous buildings. In this case, summonses were issued but there were no substantial
The going rate for a small bedroom with shared bathroom/kitchen facilities is $125 per
week- cash. Some of these converted one family homes have single rooms constructed in
cellars, subdivided first, second floors, attics, garages and even sheds. The
average number of rooms seems to be 10-12, with some far exceeding that number. Many
landlords own multiple buildings. When you receive $500. per month times the number
of rooms, it becomes evident just how lucrative this underground business is!
Just last night, in my department, our firefighters found a set of stairs leading to a
basement that was only 12" wide. We are sending our firefighters into maze-like
If the municipal leaders do not support the code enforcement efforts, more illegal work
will take place- we see entire sections of communities taken over by these landlords and a
mass exodus of the honest property owners.
While working on this column, I received an e-mail from a young, intelligent line
officer, that says a great deal-
"A big issue is that every single fine asked by the village is either dismissed or brought
down to a very insignificant number by the judge. It doesn't encourage people to comply
in the future. One man avoided going to the Planning Board for over a year for work he
was doing, after repeatedly being contacted by village personnel. His punishment? Just
pay the original permit fee?!" A very timely and accurate statement.
Unless strict inspections and enforcement takes place, the bad guys will continue to
ignore the codes/zoning, ruin neighborhoods and endanger lives. We need to send a
strong message like a local judge did this week when he said, "In the past the policy was
"Do the deed and beg for forgiveness" now, he states; "Do the deed, then pay for
As a fire service, we need to put pressure on our elected officials and their prosecuting
attorneys, to show compassion when appropriate, but go for serious penalties when