Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Dangers Of Illegal Basement Apartments

Fire In Basement Apartment Causes Critical Injuries

From the pages of Newsday, a story of an all too frequent occurence -- fire in an illegal basement apartment. Read on...

Gas line cited in blast

Newsday Staff Writer

A faulty gas line leading to a stove in an illegal basement apartment caused an explosion at a Lake Grove house that injured seven people, two of them critically, authorities said.

Neighbors said some of the victims ran from the Sarah Drive home when the blast occurred about 11 p.m. Monday, knocking on doors for help as smoke filled the sky. Some were brought out on stretchers, while others sat moaning on the side of the road, they said.

"We were so frightened," said Joanne Perrino, who lives across the street. "I saw flames in the basement. You didn't know what was going on."

Suffolk police said the blast occurred when gas leaking from a crack in a flexible metal pipe was ignited. The source of the ignition has yet to be determined. Fire then spread through the gray one-story home, burning the basement tenant and six of his guests.Rescuers transported the seven injured people to Stony Brook University Hospital. Yesterday, two were in critical condition and five in serious condition. Their names were not released, pending notification of family. Village records indicate Michael Gerenstein had rented the basement apartment in October 2005 for $9,600 for the calendar year; Gerenstein was listed in critical condition at the hospital.

For the past seven months, Sarah Drive residents and the Village of Lake Grove have been trying to get homeowner Farry Sharif to evict a young man who was renting the illegal basement apartment, a village official said yesterday.

Det. Sgt. George White of the Suffolk Arson Squad said the explosion could have happened in any home with an old stove and that the fire was not considered suspicious. The village fire marshal found that the apartment had numerous violations of state and village building codes, including no emergency exit or egress windows and poor ventilation, village attorney Gerald Lotto said yesterday.

Lotto said Sharif had repeatedly been asked to comply with the village code, which forbids single-family homes being divided into multifamily apartments. In a letter to Sharif in January, the village said that conversations with her tenant confirmed the building violations to be true. She was given 30 days to expel him.

Sharif, who was not home at the time of the fire, could not be reached for comment.

Lotto said Sharif said she was trying to evict the tenant but couldn't without proving there were violations. She could have done that by letting the building inspector in, Lotto said, but she refused his attempts."It was sort of a catch-22 for her," Lotto said. "And it was certainly a catch-22 for the village." He said the village is awaiting a hearing on a new law that would allow the town to sue individuals whose houses have signs of illegal apartments -- such as more than one mailbox, added partitions or more than one kitchen.

"It's just a sad thing that it happened before the law took place," Lotto said. "If we gained access to the house, there wouldn't have been those seven people in there. We would have found the violation."

Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.
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Well, at least the Village of Lake Grove was trying!

Of interest -- a number of townships across Long Island, including the Town of Hempstead, America's largest township, already have laws on the books that allow the township to take appropriate action where single family houses have "indicia" of illegal apartments, such as more than one mailbox or multiple utility meters (try 6 electric meters on one such house located in Elmont).

Have such laws decreased the number of illegal rental apartments, particularly within the unincorpoated areas of Long Island's townships? It appears not.

In fact, there has been no apparent diminution of the problem -- described by community leaders as "epidemic," and by several Nassau County and Town of Hempstead elected officials as "a scourge" -- in the nearly 3 years that we (as The Community Alliance and its predecessor The Tri-Community Alliance) have been battling Town Hall to take up the cause.

It's all about enforcement, really. Or should we say, the continuing lack thereof?

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