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Rockland Fire Officials Begin Crackdown on Illegal Housing

Illegally subdivided homes dangerous to tenants, firefighters

When Rockland's volunteer firefighters combat a blaze, they're already up against a formidable enemy—high flames, limited vision and thick, choking smoke.

But often there is another, man-made obstacle that hinders rescue efforts— illegal housing that does not meet local zoning regulations.

When firefighters enter a burning house, they generally know where the bedrooms are, and make sure to sweep them first. But when a landlord converts a one- or two-family home into several illegal apartments, firefighters find makeshift walls, locked doors and cramped sleeping quarters in attics and basements.

"It's an unpredictable layout," explained Gordon Wren Jr., director of Rockland County's Fire and Emergency Services, Tuesday morning.

"And firefighters have to force entry into each room," added John Kryger, a Rockland Deputy Fire Coordinator as well as a longtime Rockland County volunteer firefighter.

Wren, Kryger and the county's volunteer firefighters have noted a proliferation of these illegal homes over the past few years. In April, a 107-year-old home in Valley Cottage sustained major damage when a . After responding, firefighters learned ; 17 residents were ultimately displaced, including nine children.

Kryger said the reasons for unlawfully dissecting a home boil down to one factor— money.

"These landlords buy cheap properties and hire contractors willing to subdivide illegally," he said.

The small rooms are then rented to tenants, many of them immigrants, for about $125 a month, Kryger said. The electrical and piping work is often haphazardly done, and the homes frequently lack the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors required by law.

In one Spring Valley abode, 28 people people were living in a single house. The landlord was collecting about $160,000 a year, tax-free, Kryger said. In Stony Point, fire authorities discovered a garage converted into many tiny living quarters.

Wren noted the problem is not unique to Rockland.

"Whatever is happening here is also happening in Westchester, Putnam and Orange Counties," he said.

Wren and Kryger, however, are leading an initiative to crack down on the "lucrative" and "dangerous" business of illegal housing, they said. A county-wide Housing Task Force—made up of municipal lawmakers, firefighters and health department employees—is currently laying the groundwork for an assault on the criminal conversions.

The all-volunteer force suggested a number of resolutions at a recent meeting, which include having at least one qualified firefighter appointed to every zoning and planning board in the county.

Another solution would be increasing fines aimed at landlords who carry out the illegal operations.

"If they go to court and the judge hits them with a $250 fine, that's the price of doing business," Kryger said. "But if they hit them with a $25,000 fine, that's not the price of doing business."

Further, the task force hopes fire inspectors can work more closely with the Rockland County Health Department, the Department of Social Services, the Section 8 Housing Inspection Program and other groups.

"We can get [the landlords] in a financial vice," Wren said about levying fines from multiple directions.

County efforts are also present on a larger scale—a state bill is currently in the making, and would "amend the executive law to impose a fine of not less than $1,000 or more than $10,000, together with imprisonment for up to one year when the construction or use of a building impedes egress from the building during a fire or other emergency evacuation," according to its language.

Illegal housing in Rockland was the catalyst for the bill, Kryger said, and the proposed legislation is sponsored by Assemblymen Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst), a volunteer firefighter on Long Island.

Another motivation for the crackdown is Black Sunday, a Bronx blaze in 2005 that claimed the lives of two New York City firefighters and seriously injured four others. Two of the men hailed from Rockland County.

Wren and Kryger note they intend to follow through until the situation is remedied.

"We know it's going to be an uphill battle, but we have to start somewhere," Kryger added.

"It don't know any other county that's doing something similar," Wren said. "Rockland Fire Services have said, 'enough is enough.'"

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Tipsters: Rockland County's Fire and Emergency Services can be reached at (845) 364-8800.

Tony T May 01, 2012 at 08:24 PM
We hear this same "song and dance" about six months ago......I wonder how many illegal apartments were found out. Some communites put the names of "John's" in the local newspaper when found with hookers maybe the names of the landlord of these illegal apartments should be put in the Patch or Journal News when found and violations issued. Maybe the Patch or Journal News can get and publish an address, contact number or e mail where people can reach these officials with the suspected address of illegal apartments or housing?
WGMom May 02, 2012 at 01:18 PM
Why don't they also take a look at all the businesses using undocumented workers for things like lawn care; though heaven forbid someone in Rockland has to mow their own lawn or pay a more reasonable cost for a hired service. The huge demand for cheap labor in our area = a huge supply of undocumented workers = a demand for people earning such low wages to have a place to rest their heads. Simple economics, folks. You'll never eliminate the housing issue without addressing the overarching situations that create the housing issue. Everyone wants to vilify the poor (and usually undocumented) folks who have to resort to this type of housing, but look at your yard, your nanny, your housekeeper... if you are demanding these services but unwilling to pay a fair price that lets people earn enough to stay out of a modern tenement, or if you aren't willing to pay enough that would attract someone legally able to work in the U.S., then you are just as much a part of the problem. Cheap labor simply leads to tenement housing, whether you're looking at coal mines in Pennsylvania in the 1800s, textile mills in NYC in the early 1900s, or beautifully manicured yards in 2012.
NyackPride May 02, 2012 at 01:47 PM
^Much easier said than done. These "contractors" most all use cheap labor and get away with it. Same quality of work seems to get done. "you get what you pay for" when you hear those terms in construction, run far and fast! I've worked in construction since early 90's. The liberal post above makes no sense. You think your getting a bargain hiring a white guy. Many of them unknown are crooks, thieves and major drug addicts that I would let know where I live. All some folks do is cut out the middle man "contractor" then hire two Spanish dudes for the day to paint a basement for 300 labor vs the 2000 some non-imagrant gave the quote for.
Chris May 02, 2012 at 01:52 PM
Parks Board & Recreation Committee First Thursdays, 7:00 PM, Adm. Office -- 31 Zukor Road Rudy Damonti, Chairman Scott Milich Brian Tesseyman Lon M. Hofstein Philip Degaetano John J. O’Connell Sylvester Almiron, Jr., MD Eileen C. Gray, Secretary Clarkstown has Dr. Sylvester Almiron on their Park Board and Recreation Committee and he owns a home with illegal apartments? Do you really want someone involved in this type of activity on your board? Burned Valley Cottage Home Had Illegal Apartments pearlriver.patch.com Fire displaced over a dozen residents, including children
WGMom May 02, 2012 at 02:33 PM
Reality has a well-known liberal bias.

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