Turning The Tide On Illegal Housing
I met this week with State Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski to discuss a partnership in our battle against illegal housing and overcrowding in Rockland County. Our communities face a growing problem with thousands of low-income residents living in illegally converted, jerry-built apartments leased by exploitive absentee landlords who receive cash for rentals. While our new Rockland Codes Initiative (RCI) is showing great success in attacking the problem, it’s clear we’re fighting a war on several fronts. Because of his aggressive efforts to raise awareness of illegal dwelling and lax code enforcement at the state level, Assemblyman Zebrowski is the perfect ally in our fight to improve the safety of our housing stock.
Across the county, from Tomkins Cove to Suffern, our Department of Health fields complaints every day about single-family homes that have been illegally sliced up into three, four and five apartments. Since launching RCI onApril 30th, our four-member Unified Neighborhood Inspection Team (UNIT) has logged more than 1,300 inspections stemming from 349 confidential complaints.During the July 15th Board of Health meeting, $45,900 in fines were levied against property owners found in violation of Article 13 – Housing Hygiene. These fines were levied against property owners in Nanuet, Spring Valley and New City. Fine amounts are only expected to increase with a record number of housing inspections now being performed under RCI. Our plan to hit slumlords in their wallets is working – without a single resident displaced by eviction, to date, under the new initiative.
For decades, any efforts by the county to target substandard housing have been stymied. County governments typically have little control over zoning, building and fire code enforcement, with most issues left to town and village inspectors. But, RCI takes a different tack by utilizing the broad powers of the Rockland County Department of Health to ferret out unsafe living conditions, from rotted floors and broken pipes to illegal rooms, bad wiring, leaky roofs and general filth. We’re thinking outside the box. We’re using every tool we have to tackle a life-or-death problem.
In the past, public officials have been spurred sporadically into action by some well-publicized event, like a fire in which residents of illegal apartments lose their lives because of dangerously overcrowded conditions. But, I will not wait for the next tragedy. As your County Executive, I will not allow a child or one of Rockland County’s dedicated first responders to die in a converted attic or hidden stairwell.
We know the thriving illegal apartment market is fueled by a mix of greed and a need for more affordable places to live in our county. In addition to hiring more health inspectors, our Office of Community Development continues to promote federally financed programs that help people become first-time home buyers and push for expansion of federally subsidized rental programs.
With increased enforcement comes education. While inspecting various properties, our UNIT informs residents on their rights. Our inspectors let tenants know that they don’t have to stay in terrible living conditions that shady landlords impose on them. Our Department of Social Services stands at the ready to assist with temporary support for all local families. While cracking down on unscrupulous landlords is our goal, we don’t want displaced renters just moving to other illegal dwellings a few blocks away. I acknowledge that if we crack down, we must have alternatives, or we’re just making our crisis even more of a crisis. And know that since we started this initiative, there has not been one displacement.
Housing is a basic human need, and the suitability of one’s housing with regard to size, safety and cost is a critical component of a person’s quality of life. It is the County of Rockland’s intent to ensure that all residents can find suitable housing in each of our communities. And, while our housing problems are vast and multifaceted, I know the Rockland Codes Initiative is the first of several steps my administration will take toward creating a community where everyone can afford a safe home – without adding risk to our volunteer first responders. Our goal is to improve substandard housing – and, we are already seeing results.