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January 01, 2016 | NEW YORK Gordon Wren, Correspondent

In my November column, I wrote about a fatal structure fire that Central Nyack Fire Chief Mike Healy responded to. Chief Healy arrived on the scene within a few minutes after dispatch and found a working fire in what appeared to be a well-maintained building, typical of any one-family suburban dwelling. In actuality, the former one-family house had been converted illegally for a three-family occupancy. Chief Healy sent firefighters into the burning building because there were reports of a female resident trapped inside. Search and Rescue evolutions, particularly before the fire was brought under control, can be very dangerous and confusing. In this case, even more so because the building had been converted without building permits; and there were numerous violations that one would not find in a normal floor plan for a legal one-family house.

I am not sure if it is due to the economy in our area of New York State with the high cost of living or a lack of strong enforcement of the building and fire codes, but in any case, we are experiencing a proliferation of illegally converted buildings in many areas of our county. In many cases, no fines are ever levied or very small ones, which do not act as a deterrent. Regardless of the reasons, illegal landlords appear to be making so much money that they feel comfortable continuing to invest in the conversion of large numbers of buildings, with little threat from local government. They create revenue flows, consisting of mostly cash with no leases and frequently rented to undocumented tenants, who do not complain to the authorities.

In recognition of the weakness of the legal system to effectively prohibit the spread of these illegal conversions, we have encouraged the formation of civic groups. We as citizens have substantial power in civil court and otherwise to affect positive changes. These groups have been ferreting out illegal structures by sometimes going street by street looking for illegal buildings and reporting them to the proper government enforcement agencies.

These groups then follow the cases in meetings at local Zoning Board of Appeals, Planning Boards, as well as court hearings. For controversial cases, they can fill a Hearing Room to full capacity, supplying speakers on the topic. They can also follow the court cases, taking notes on the proceedings and objecting or going to the media when a dismissal is considered or a small fine for a major violation is levied. These groups are highly effective, particularly when working with the local fire departments. They are making life very uncomfortable for the bad guys, who put our firefighters and residents in tremendous danger. It is also very satisfying to see successful prosecutions and large fines imposed upon unscrupulous slum landlords who jeopardize the safety of others for their own greedy financial benefit.

If you would like more information on how to get a group started in your coverage area, feel free to give me a call at 845-364-8933 or e-mail me at wreng@co.rockland.ny.us

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Gordon WrenCorrespondent

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