A fire at a Cedar Street home in July left two families homeless, but according to village officials, one of those families should not have been living there. The property owner was cited for renting out an illegal apartment in the basement.
In early October, fire gutted a home on Viola Street. While officials determined that it was being used as a one-family home, as intended, that wasn’t the case for a house next door. When firefighters went in to check carbon monoxide levels to determine whether it would be safe for the occupants to return, they found three apartments in what should have been a single-family home. That landlord, too, was issued summonses.
After tenants complained about the living conditions at building on Gold Street, Valley Stream launched an investigation. According to village officials, the building, consisting of two connected two-family homes, was found to have 10 apartments instead of the four that were approved.
These are examples of a decades-old problem in the village — illegal apartments. “We have nothing against multiple dwellings,” said Mayor Ed Fare, citing several housing developments under construction in Valley Stream. “We have a problem with illegal multiple dwellings. It’s a safety issue.”
Village Code Enforcement officials are tipped off to illegal apartments in a variety of ways. Fires are one way, but they are relatively rare occurrences. More often, firefighters are called to a home for medical assistance and discover what they believe to be an illegal dwelling. Police officers often share information with the Code Enforcement department after visiting a home to deal with a landlord-tenant or domestic dispute. Even more common, a neighbor calls the village to report a suspected illegal dwelling.
Frank Roca, the village’s fire inspector, said that illegal apartments create obvious dangers. An extra housing unit puts a strain on a home’s electrical service, increasing the risk of a fire. Hot plates and microwaves are often used in places they don’t belong, and illegal apartments often lack smoke detectors, Roca said.
No basement apartments
“You can sleep in a basement in the state of New York. You cannot sleep in a basement in the village of Valley Stream,” said Sal Costanzo, the director of Code Enforcement.
The village’s restrictions go above and beyond New York state law. Even a regular single-family home in Valley Stream is not supposed to have a bedroom in the basement. Based on that restriction alone, it isn’t possible to have a legal cellar dwelling, explained Village Justice Robert Bogle. “Cellar units are easily the most dangerous,” he said, noting that most have small windows and only one way in or out.
Basement apartments also pose a danger to firefighters if there is a fire call, Roca said. The units are often divided into small rooms, in which, when filled with smoke, firefighters can easily get disoriented.
Property owners who are hit with summonses for illegal apartments find their way to the village court for Wednesday-night meetings with Bogle. He said he gives little leeway to landlords who rent out illegal apartments, and isn’t afraid to come down hard on them.
The fine for an illegal apartment is $2,000 for a first offense and $3,000 for each subsequent offense. Bogle likes to impose a conditional discharge, in which, after a case is settled, Code Enforcement has the power to inspect the premises at any time over the next two years. If Bogle learns that the landlord hasn’t removed the apartment or has started renting it again, he or she will be subject to even larger penalties.
The justice has another tool to use as well. “This year, we’ve put two people in jail,” he said. “I don’t like to do it often, but it is something in the arsenal of deterrents.”
Bogle explained that he put one property owner in jail for 15 days this year — and ordered a $48,000 lien against the home — and another got locked up for nine days. He said that he only does this in the most extreme cases — for a repeat offender, an uncooperative landlord or someone who creates living conditions that “shock the conscience.”
While the court will typically order a landlord to remove the illegal apartment, Bogle said he will allow a little time for the tenant to find a new place to live. Tenants often don’t know that their apartment is illegal, officials said.
A real estate agent who knowingly markets a single-family house as a multiple-family dwelling can also face charges, Bogle said. Facilitating an illegal apartment is against the law, and the justice said he isn’t afraid to hit a real estate agent with a large fine because “they should know better.” In the past, he has also reported brokers to the New York Board of Realtors after a case was settled.
Fare noted that one of the reasons the village is tough on illegal apartments is because they put a strain on village services. An illegally subdivided house is taxed as a one-family home, yet there are two or more families using those services.
Perception in the village
Costanzo said that one factor that works in the village’s favor is that Valley Stream has a reputation for being tough on illegal apartments. The village acts on every tip, he said, even if it’s an anonymous one.
So far this year, the village has issued summonses at 58 different properties. Officials have investigated perhaps twice as many complaints, Costanzo estimated, but many prove to be unfounded.
It is hard to “legalize” an illegal apartment in Valley Stream, he said. The Board of Zoning Appeals is skeptical about doing that in a residential zone, he said, because it would set a precedent that would negatively impact the character of the village’s neighborhoods.
According to village code, two rooms of a one-family home can be rented out to boarders. In a two-family home, each family can rent to one boarder. In those circumstances, however, each dwelling may have only one kitchen.
Village officials say that all of these regulations are in place to protect residents and to maintain the community’s suburban character. “The safety of our residents,” Fare said, “is paramount.”