|Ed Day standing in front of house that has 19 violations|
The Rockland Health Department and other county agencies are launching a new crackdown on the spread of substandard and illegal housing to improve safety for residents and firefighters responding to emergencies.
The Rockland Codes Initiative includes hiring more housing inspectors, levying larger penalties against landlords and an online reporting system where residents can file anonymous complaints when they know of illegal dwellings.
Officials have also started an online Worst Landlord Watch List in an effort to bring anonymous LLCs to the light of public scrutiny. The list's top five worst offenders are posted now.
"We all know firefighting is dangerous enough," County Executive Ed Day said Thursday, standing on the sidewalk in front of a dilapidated three-story home at 76 Fairview Ave., the first property on the Worst Landlord Watch List. "It should not be made more dangerous when property owners motivated by greed illegally carve up apartments. We cannot allow a child or one of Rockland County's bravest to die in a converted attic or hidden stairwell."
Officials said the 2,522-square-foot tan stucco home has racked up 19 violations. On five visits, inspectors found faulty or inadequate sprinkler and alarm systems and emergency exits, as well as possible illegal dwellings in the basement and third floor.
The property is managed by Yaniv Razak through Metallic Sunburst LLC. Razak could not be reached for comment.
The crackdown reveals the extent to which illegal housing has transformed huge swaths of suburban Rockland.
While towns and villages are supposed to enforce fire and zoning codes, there are widespread concerns about landlords who illegally convert single-family homes, chopping them into small rooms and stuffing them with recent immigrants — many of them illegal.
"The driving force of this is money," Day said. "It's not unlike drug-dealing in the city."
Frustrated inspectors and fire officials warn that these illegal dwellings often lack emergency exits — a huge fire hazard that could mean a disaster in an emergency.
The new initiative stems in part from a perceived lack of enforcement and negligible penalties against absentee landlords in many town and village courts. Reports from the state have singled out Ramapo and Spring Valley, in particular, for serious problems.
Penalties under the county initiative can reach $2,000 per day per violation. As part of the crackdown, the county will also report landlords who are found to be taking rental payments in cash to the IRS for possible tax evasion.
"The cost of doing business has gone up," Rockland Health Commissioner Dr. Patricia Schnabel Rubbert said.
One landlord, Clarel Jean, already has been slapped with $38,000 in fines by the Rockland Board of Health for violations at 73 S. Madison Ave. in Spring Valley, she said. Another home at 57 S. Madison — managed by Jonathan Weiss, who oversees many properties in Spring Valley — was hit with a $2,200 fine.
The stepped-up enforcements will be conducted under the Rockland County sanitary code, which allows the county's inspectors to issue summonses forcing repairs and bringing the landlord before the Rockland Board of Health.
The Health Department can inspect properties without permission and also can review schools with dormitories and kitchens, many of which face town and village violations in Ramapo.
The Health Department will get two more housing inspectors, bringing the number to four, plus two new supervisors.
The additional inspectors, if approved by the Rockland Legislature, will get paid $46,000 annually with benefits. Day said the county also might hire retired police officers and firefighters to supplement the efforts, as long as they earn less than $30,000 a year to comply with their retirement plans.
Day said the enhanced inspection program will pay for itself through fines, penalties and registration fees.
John Kryger, chairman of the Rockland Illegal Housing Task Force, said the more aggressive response is what the fire services have been seeking and "reaffirms our goal of safety for the tenants and first responders of this county."
Gordon Wren Jr., coordinator of Rockland Fire and Emergency Services, also supported the move.
"I am encouraged by this giant step taken by the county," Kryger said. "It's just one piece in a puzzle that includes the District Attorney's Office, the state codes division and the FBI, to name a few."
Elements of the Rockland Codes Initiative
■ Web-based complaint form for people to confidentially report suspected illegal housing or unsafe conditions. The form will appear on the county government website at http://rocklandgov.com/ and the Rockland Health Department website athttp://rocklandgov.com/departments/health/. Or call the Health Department with complaints at 845-364-2585.
■ Rockland County Worst Landlords Watch List of property owners operating the most dangerous and dilapidated buildings with the most violations.
■ Multiple Dwelling Registry Law: Landlords must pay a fee and provide their names, addresses and contact information, including for their building managers.