Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fire In The Belly Of The Beast

Students At Risk In Illegal Basement Apartments

Illegal accessory apartments. Long a scourge in towns and hamlets across our island. A clear and present danger to their occupants. An onerous tax burden to law-abiding homeowners. A chronic problem for our schools. A major dtractor from our suburban quality of life. The raison d'etre for establishing The Community Alliance.

The battle to eradicate illegal rental apartments in single family homes, or at least to stem the tide of proliferation throughout Long Island's townships, waxes and wanes with public sentiment, and the pressures of other issues that crowd residents' plates.

We're up in arms, flailing away at elected officials, and then, just as suddenly, when the immediate furor of the front page news of twenty beds in a basement apartment or a family trapped below grade in a fire with no means of egress fades, the uproar subsides, and we go back into hibernation. [Much as we do, come to think of it, after every election cycle.]

The response from officialdom, be it to make it easier to identify and summons illegal accessory apartments -- codifying the "indicia", such as multiple utility meters or a half dozen mailboxes and door bells, and legislating "nail & mail" service upon errant homeowners -- has done little to hold back the influx of unlawful rentals, basement apartments being the norm (particularly in a bad economy) rather than an aberration.

The problem, as we've intimated all along, is multifaceted.

1. Inadequate enforcement. No law on the books will make a difference if it is overlooked, or only enforced by town building departments after the fact, as when a fire below brings word of an underground dwelling place to the surface.

2. Too few building inspectors. An excuse, rather than a reason. With all the people on payroll at the Town, surely there should not be a personnel issue.

3. Lack of affordable housing, particularly in the rental market. Single-family homes will barely make a dent in the dearth of affordable residences needed to house those who now seek refuge -- or an inexpensive roof overhead (typically not up to code) -- on Long Island. Multiple dwelling units, in and around "downtown," are critical, as is the need to increase density and, in some instances, go vertical.

4. A "that's just the way it is" attitude among residents. Indifference. Apathy. "There's nothing we can do," are the thorns in the side of progress, and certainly, a major roadblock to remedying the illegal accessory apartment crisis. A constant, pounding force exerted upon our elected representatives to tackle this pressing concern once and for all -- with more than just lip service or the occasional summons -- is required. The once-in-a-blue-moon moan, or the here-and-again din will simply not move the mountain.

And it's not just college students who are living in often substandard illegal rentals. It's our young workforce, mom, dad and the kids, and seniors forced from their homes by increasing taxes and diminshing incomes.

Long Islanders need to wake up to the fact that "nuisances" such as illegal accessory apartments are not only the fodder for more cars on our residential streets, more trash at the curb, over usage of our water supply, and too many kids in the classroom. Illegal accessory apartments are as much a part and parcel of the property tax dilemma as are school budgets, special districts, and too many governmental hands in our pockets.

Add to this the risk to both life and property, and illegal rentals are, indeed, the recipe for disaster.
- - -
From Newsday:

Hofstra students escape blaze in Uniondale house

A fire in a Uniondale house occupied by several Hofstra University students prompted the Town of Hempstead to issue three summonses to the landlord for violations involving illegal use of a single-family house.

No one was hurt in Tuesday's fire, which was started by an unattended candle in the basement, a Uniondale fire official said.

But the blaze illuminated what fire officials and neighborhood residents call an ongoing problem: the influx of illegal student rentals in the area.

Hempstead building officials issued the court appearance tickets to Francisco Iannucci, who owns the Meadowbrook Road home, for code violations including creating separate living quarters with locks on bedroom doors and allowing tenants to sleep in the basement.

Iannucci could not be reached for comment.

Uniondale Assistant Fire Chief Howard Long said department members arrived shortly after the 8:40 a.m. call to find "a lot of smoke" in the basement and a "working fire about to take off."
He said one tenant living in the basement said she had left a lit candle on a table while she took a shower. The flame ignited "some contents on the table," Long said. Six people were exiting the house when firefighters arrived, he said, and three others had left earlier for classes.

Tenant Melissa Feil, 21, said she was roused from sleep in her second-floor room by wailing fire alarms. "We were definitely scared because everyone that lives in the house, we were all sleeping in our own bedrooms, so we didn't really know where it [the fire] was coming from," she said.

She said she rushed down the stairs to the first floor, where the smoke was thickening, then ran out of the house with some of her house mates.

Long said the fire was contained in the basement, but the upper floors were damaged by smoke.

Feil and another occupant, Casey, 22, who declined to give his last name, both seniors at Hofstra, said they've rented the two-story house for a year with three other friends, all seniors at the college. Hofstra officials said they're working to secure emergency housing for students who request it.

Uniondale civic activists say they've been complaining for years about absentee landlords buying houses in the area and renting out rooms to Hofstra students with what they say is little concern for the neighborhood.

"Why are we allowing our community to become a renter's paradise?" asked Melvyn Harris, president of the Nostrand Gardens Civic Association. "If you're going to rent out your house like that, how come you're not paying commercial taxes?"

Harris said he gets complaints from other residents every month about loud parties and underage drinking in the rental houses.

Town Councilwoman Dorothy Goosby said she has forwarded residents' complaints to town building officials about seven other student houses.


  1. How come Garden City doesn't have an illegal basement apartment problem?

    Well (1) the residents of Garden City wouldn't tolerate it, and (2) the building department is very strict in its code enforcement.

    As homeowners we can no longer look the other way when we see illegal apartments being rented in one of our neighbor's houses. There's no reason to be afraid to complain as you can file your complaint anonymously to the Town of Hempstead by calling (516) 489-6000. I have called the number, and the Town did come to investigate.

    Secondly, the Town has got to get its act together with enforcement. Right now they are too easily thwarted by the stonewalling property owner. If the federal government can get people with offshore bank accounts to fess up, we should be able to get absentee landlords to account for their illegal apartments!

  2. Anon,

    GC is one of the very few villages on Long Island that has an effective buildings dept,combined with residents who actually care about their neighboorhoods.

    unfortunately, the vast majority of building departments are both inept and incompetant,combined with apathetic residents.

    fining illegal landlords does nothing;they pay the fines and shrug it off as a cost of doing business. yeah hempstead may investigate but only in TOH,not in the incorporated villages. How many illegal homeowners have been fined or or been jailed? one or two if that many?

  3. community alliance,

    another big problem is that many of the illegal apartments are hidden- they dont have the multiple doorbells,mailboxes,trashcans,cars,etc that are an obvious tipoff.

    other than tips from neighbors,the vast majority of whom know but obviously look the other way, how can TOH or the villages or anyone else find these apts? the LL's refuse them entry and they cant get a court order "on a hunch".

    vexing indeed.

  4. While we're not suggesting that a community of snitches is optimal, we must understand that what is going on in our neighbors house ultimately afftects our own.

    Surely, if we knew that there was a bomb factory or a pot farm in the basement of the house next door, we'd feel compelled to file a complaint. [Well, about the bomb factory, at least. LOL]

    Knowing that illegal accessory apartments not only devalue our properties, but also increase our property tax burden, we should feel equally compelled to seek redress.

    Granted, absent obvious indicia or the consent of the "landlord," building inspectors would be stymied in their efforts to gain access to the dwelling. Still, "turn the other cheek" is rarely a good practice, and better for the owner of an illegal accessory apartment to know he is being watched than for both town and neighbor to look the other way as our very quality of life is destroyed.