There's usually that one house on the block that you eye when you drive past. Maybe it has too many people coming and going. Or maybe it has too many cars parked off-street or on the lawn.
At last week's Nanuet Civic Association meeting, Joel Epstein, Clarkstown Code Enforcement Officer, was invited to answer questions about “rentals” and conversions of single family houses.
Epstein started with the question of, ‘what is permitted and what is illegal?’
“It’s not illegal to rent your house or to be an absentee owner as long as it constitutes as a single-family house,” he said, adding that Nanuet also happens to have a lot of legal 2-family houses “that date back … to the 1940s.
Check back with Patch for more on parking and boarding violations
“Most live in a single-family house. A single-family house has all the elements of single-family dwelling unit: no separate entrance to a separate dwelling unit on its own with a kitchen, bathroom and bedroom and is not partitioned,” said Epstein.
“It has nothing to do with how many people are living in there. Over-occupancy is a building code issue – how many people can live in a place depends on the number of square feet. I think it’s 80 sq ft per person. A guy can have eight kids and they can all have bunk beds. That’s not going to be an over-occupancy issue.”
Epstein said that single-family use has nothing to do with the residents being related.
“You can have ten or 12 unrelated people living in a house with a supervisor and that constitutes as a single family house, as long as they take their meals together, they have one kitchen, no partitions, they all use the same entrance and same driveway.”
“What you look at when you see a bunch of cars and people coming in and out, it may very well be a single-family house … It might be an eyesore and a nuisance, with late-night noise or taxis beeping at 5 a.m. (but it may be a legal single-family home). The only way to determine … for code enforcement is for us to get in.”
He added that sometimes, the unfortunate way that they’re able to enter the home is when a fire occurs “and fire inspector says this was an illegal conversion.”
There are certain indications that there is a problem. Epstein said that sometimes neighbors complain and other times, he also has “garbage men call and say, ‘I’ve seen five pails of garbage a week.’”
As for a resident’s complaint, the first step in the complaint investigation process is “to knock on the door and ask to be allowed in,” said Epstein, adding that the tenant can allow enforcement to go in.
“Once you get in and you determine there’s a separate dwelling unit, that’s a zoning violation. The landlord would be contacted and cited with a violation notice,” even if it’s an absentee landlord.
“If I can’t get in, I have to get a hold of the absentee landlord, and say I would like to do an inspection,” said Epstein. If landlord says no, authorities can, with probable cause, get an administrative warrant signed by a judge. However, the landlord can go to court and plead not guilty. He’s only fined if he’s convicted. “It all goes through the due process.”
If there is a violation, the landlord is then given a period of time to comply, by removing partitions and removing one of the elements of the second dwelling, usually the kitchen. After he does that, the home is then re-inspected.
However, it’s difficult for the landlord at times because “how complicated would that be if he had two rent rolls going and two completely unrelated people living there who don’t even know each other.”
“If he doesn’t (comply), he goes to court and the code enforcement prosecution is ruled by the criminal procedure law and is a criminal charge. He has the right to due process. Some of our charges are misdemeanors; he would have the right to a jury trial. It usually doesn’t get that far. Normally you work out a settlement and he gets back in (to the house) and converts the house back to a single-family use.”
Epstein added that sometimes, the court process takes several months. “Sometimes it’s a tedious adjudication process.
Epstein added that police officers cannot write up a code violation for converted homes and illegal rentals, but can only follow up on noise and parking complaints.
“We are a proactive police department. If you’re reactive, you’ll never catch up,” said Clarkstown Police Officer Mark Hamilla. “We encourage our officers if they’re in an illegal apartment, to document it and put it in a report and say why. We send that over to the fire inspector and building department.”
Another resident said that the codes sound very lenient, to which, Epstein replied,
“The cultural diversity of the real estate market, things have changed. It’s the nature of our suburban landscape. It’s not post WWII and people moved up from the city. You have a completely different landscape now. You can’t regulate who buys a house.”
He added that he’s knocked on a lot of doors and the fact that he speaks several languages has come in handy.
Nanuet Resident Arthur Winoker asked if it was an issue of needing more resources or code enforcement people and possibly have salaries depend on number of fines collected.
“If there isn’t a political will to do this, we’re just going around in circles here,” said Winoker.
“Sure, if we had more staffing and (could be) more proactive than reactive,” said Epstein. “The people who you’re prosecuting, they’re taxpayers, they’re your neighbors … court is a last resort, voluntary compliance is (what we aim for).”
Another resident asked about enforcement on citizenship status.
“The local municipality has no jurisdiction, that’s a federal issue. We don’t ask people if they’re an illegal alien,” said Epstein.