When a building inspector went to investigate, he couldn't believe his eyes. The person was living in an 8-by-10 foot cubicle, among 10 such tiny, cramped separate compartments in the basement of a home that was zoned for only two families.
The building was immediately deemed an illegal apartment. The landlord, listed in township records as Emile Mensorio of Lantana, Fla., has been charged with violating the state construction codes by installing illegal apartments with no formal certificate of occupancy, as well as failing to meet the township's existing variance codes for the land use.
Apparently, each resident was paying approximately $90 a week in rent for the cramped quarters. The residents were given three weeks notice to evacuate, by state law, and if they cannot find suitable living arrangements by March 23, then the town will help to find and finance relocation.
In turn, the town will seek to receive the relocation costs from Mensorio.
May be just the start
This illegal apartment complex is not the only one in town. Some township officials claim that as many as half of the township's apartment homes may have illegal living quarters somewhere within their facilities.
"I don't know if the numbers are as high as 50 percent," says Guttenberg Mayor David Delle Donna. "But it is a growing concern in the town, especially in a case like this where there was an apparent profit being made. This wasn't a case where the owner was building an extra apartment to help make ends meet. This was a gross case of trying to make a profit, and we can't have that."
Because of the illegal apartment problem in Guttenberg, elected officials introduced an ordinance Thursday night that will immediately put the onus of relocation fees on the owners of the illegal apartments. The ordinance will also enable the town to recoup the costs to educate the children of those living in illegal apartments by fining the owners.
Currently, the town has to follow state statues, which forces the town to incur the relocation costs, then get the money back in the form of tax liens on the properties.
The new ordinance would enable the town to bill the owners for relocation and education right away.
"People are putting in illegal apartments in every nook and cranny that they can find," Delle Donna said. "They're gutting out basements and putting in apartments. It's crazy the way they're cramming people in. It affects everyone. It effects the school population, the parking, the quality of life."
Added Delle Donna, "We've instructed our building department and construction code officer [Bob Rogers, Sr.] to be on the lookout and vigorously attack the problem. This case on 70th Street was the worst case scenario."
In recent weeks, township officials also found two illegal apartment facilities operating on 71st Street and another on 68th Street.
"We don't want to hurt the people that are renting, but they have to know that it's not right to be living there, especially under those cramped conditions," Delle Donna said. "It's not safe either. We can't allow things like this to continue, people living in 8x10 cubicles. It's no way to live."
The residents were all natives of Central America, believed to be laborers. They were living in the cubicles that had perhaps room for a bed and a little nightstand with a light. They shared a kitchen area and one tiny bathroom. The cubicles apparently had no ventilation and no windows.
Mensorio faces stiff fines in the case of the 10 cubicles - especially because he received warning last August that the apartments were illegal, according to officials.
In another instance, a building on Palisade Avenue that was zoned for three families was found to be housing nine families. The building drew the attention of Rogers, the construction code official, who had grown up in the home. He knew that the basement was never used for living quarters.
Inspectors found three separate living spaces in the basement, with the rent at $300 per month.
Those renters have been relocated as well.
A building on 71st Street was found to have four illegal apartments in the basement of the structure. That site was located when a teenage student was denied enrollment at Anna L. Klein School for failing to provide an adequate proof of residency.
Each building owner where illegal apartments have been uncovered must have the units taken apart and vacated, as well as paying $2,000 fines to the township, or face further charges in Superior Court.
The tiny units represent a fire hazard and do not always conform to other building standards. In nearby Union City, Mayor Brian Stack started cracking down on such units last year.
"It's a very serious concern and something we have to address on a daily basis," Delle Donna said. "We can't allow this to continue."