Broken mailboxes, missing doorknobs and garbage in the hallways are the most common first signs that landlords have rented out illegally-subdivided apartments in their buildings, he said.
Stack believes there are scores of basement apartments, attic units and other subdivided apartments carved out of regular living spaces in Union City and West New York that are not meeting basic codes but are being rented to families anyway. The low-income families get crammed into miniscule spaces for $80 a week, and the landlords get to make extra bucks.
Ever since Union City issued its first citation last month for illegal basement apartments at 2216 Bergenline Ave., Stack, along with his quality of life inspection team, has been running a series of general inspections to try to control the number of these apartments being rented.
Stack and this team of inspectors are now targeting what they consider to be the worst buildings in the city.
"We started with a list of 10 of the worst buildings in the city," said Stack. "That list has already increased to at least 20."
"This area is just filled with complaints," said Construction Code Official Luis Caballero last week, while inspecting buildings on Bergenline Avenue between 24th and 27th streets.
Officials say that the apartments are crowded and don't provide adequate means of egress in case of fire. In some cases, several units will share one bathroom.
What's the alternative?
Union City passed the "Relocation Assistance for Tenants Displaced Due to Illegal Occupancy" ordinance on June 28, which holds landlords responsible for paying up to six times the cost of the monthly rent for the relocation of tenants in their illegal apartments who are forced to move.
This ordinance was put to use last month, when Osvaldo and Marta Lara, the landlords of 2216 Bergenline Ave., were found to be harboring five tenants living in 7-by-7-foot cubicles in their basement. The Laras were found guilty in court and will be forced to pay about $3,000 in relocation costs for their tenants.
"This ordinance makes it possible for people to have the economic means to find another place," said Stack, who has worked with these tenants by giving them a list of apartments to look into and, in some cases, hooking them up with roommates.
But is it really so easy for tenants to relocate?
After an illegal apartment is found in a building, the landlord is issued a report detailing what needs to be done to bring the apartment up to code and a date in which the renovations need to be completed. If they're completed, the tenants can move back in. But if not, the situation might get difficult.
The metropolitan area is known for expensive housing and high population density. Low-cost housing for families is difficult to find, and public housing buildings have long waiting lists.
One Jersey City resident who worked with a homeless shelter in the area thinks that these tenants should be able to chose where they want to live, even if it is in an "illegal" apartment.
"Renting a room is an agreement between the landlord and the tenant," said L. Spooner last week. "If given a choice [between homelessness and an illegal apartment], people will take the crappy apartment. But [by displacing these tenants], you are taking away their choice."
Some officials disagree that it's OK to live in a unit that's miniscule and not up to fire codes.
"If I was in dire straits," said Union City Maintenance Inspector Joe Russo, describing the condition of a basement unit being occupied in one of the buildings, "I would rather sleep on the sidewalks than in that basement."
People looking to rent rooms in Union City do not necessarily have to rely on unsafe accommodations to get by. The city has at least six establishments, whose advertisements are sometimes seen in local newspapers, that rent rooms to people looking for housing. There are at least two in each section of the city. However, there is often a waiting list for rooms.
"People renting a room is not a bad thing at all," said Stack. "Just make sure that they are up to code."
Family housing might be another story.
According to the officials conducting the inspections on Bergenline Avenue last week, many of these basement cubicles and subdivisions were rented by single men trying to make ends meet. There was also a mixture of English and non-English speaking residents, as well as one family.
Stack attributed the problem to the population increase in the city.
"Look at the increase," said Stack, referring to the Census numbers released earlier this year. "Union City has had no major increase in construction or development. These people have to be going into subdivisions or basement apartments."
Union City and West New York were ranked as the second and third most densely populated cities in New Jersey in 2000. The numbers also show a 9,000-person population increase in Union City, going from 58,012 people in 1990 to 67,088 people in 2000, and an 8,000-person increase in West New York, from 38,125 people in 1990 to 45,768 people in 2000.
Right now, West New York is looking into the relocation ordinances they currently have within their rent control ordinance. Mayor Albio Sires said that if their relocation ordinances are not as complete as Union City's, he will authorize his attorneys to draft a new ordinance to tighten them up.
Stack said that although these inspections have uncovered some illegal apartments, he thinks there are still many more that they do not know about.
More than two families in a two-family
What the city is finding during these inspections is that it's not just basement apartments that are not up to code. Many landlords are now illegally subdividing regular apartments and creating attic apartments as well.
When city officials inspected one two-family building last week, it was found to be housing five families.
According to the inspection team, the top floor railroad apartment was subdivided to fit four families, one of which had four children. These four families were sharing one kitchen and one bathroom and had no fire escape.
This same building also had a single man sharing the basement with a storage area for the business on the first floor.
While many factors may be contributing to the current rise in illegal apartments and subdivisions, last year's tax increase in the city along with the population increase may be contributing.
"There are always illegal apartments," said West New York Mayor Albio Sires, who said that West New York began cracking down on illegal apartments seven or eight years ago. "It is just one of those things you have to stay on top of."
"This area [of Hudson County] is famous for railroad apartments," said Fire Inspector Lou Miranda. "Over the years they have been subdivided. We wouldn't know anything about them until we get there."
While West New York has been cracking down on illegal apartments for some time, the town has been able to work on the problem without having to displace any tenants.
"We haven't gotten to that level yet," said Sires, adding that the town has been relying on the state-required housing inspections every five years to ferret out illegal units.