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November 01, 2014 | NATIONAL Gordon Wren, Correspondent

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,

once again.

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

penalties levied.

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


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Gordon WrenCorrespondent

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