In the last year, several residents have complained at council meetings about an influx of illegal apartments and, at times, the problem of illegal immigrants they claimed negatively affected their quality of life.
Mayor Gerald Drasheff said that he would not call Guttenberg’s situation a “problem” but that it was an issue that densely populated Hudson County had to deal with.
Drasheff said that it was a difficult problem to stay on top of for numerous reasons.
He categorized illegal apartments by three different types.
The first, where a landlord converts a house or basement into cubicles and rents them out to individuals, is the most dangerous. He said that according to Guttenberg’s Construction Code Official, Vincent Prieto, there have been three “cubicle” incidents in the last year.
Drasheff said that these incidents guaranteed that there would be dozens of violations and that because it jeopardizes safety, the town’s fire official can issue an order to vacate immediately.
He said that many residents may not know where to forward their complaints on illegal apartments. The problem of cubicle apartments would be dealt with by fire officials because all of the separately locked doors violate “all different kinds of fire laws.”
Other situations, like illegal basement apartments or houses that seem to be overcrowded, are not as simple.
Drasheff said that illegal apartments are dealt with through a more complicated process because they are not imminently dangerous.
He said that after receiving a complaint for an illegal third apartment in a two-family house, the building department must check its records and see if the homeowner needed a variance.
If they underwent construction without receiving variances from the town’s planning board, then they receive a court notice and may be fined by the town’s building, construction and fire departments and be forced to rip the third dwelling out of the house.
He said that often people will try to avoid having their taxes increase by not following the proper procedure to convert a two-family house to a three family dwelling. They may avoid going to the planning board, or they may only file for inspection with the state.
Drasheff said that they do not get fined by the state that way, because the state only checks for safety. Then years later, town officials sometimes find out that their tax records still show a two-family dwelling, even though its been converted to fit more people.
By avoiding the planning board, they also avoid providing parking spaces to those who rent, and by doing so impact parking for the rest of the town, said Drasheff.
Sometimes people leaving the area will advertise their homes for sale as having a “bonus apartment,” lingo that Drasheff said often translates into “illegal.”
Drasheff said that they tried to stop this from occurring by hiring their own building inspector, Oscar Murillo, who does the state inspections while also working for the town. Guttenberg receives a stipend from the state for his salary.
Drasheff said that he is not sure if the third scenario, where unrelated people are living in the same house together, is necessarily illegal or even overcrowded.
“I’ll see it when we go campaigning,” said Drasheff. “They’ll be five males…combining their resources to pay the rent and I’m not sure if that’s illegal.”
He said that many of these people may be immigrants, working and sending money home to another country, trying to make ends meet. He said that most of them are not creating a problem in town.
Drasheff said his main concern was cubicles, for the public safety risk they caused, and for illegal third apartments because of the financial impact on the rest of the town.
Drasheff said that a lot of the same people who complain do not do so formally.
“If you’re concerned about your neighborhood and its impact on your quality of life in your house, you need to pick up the phone,” said Drasheff, and call town officials.
“The area just isn’t built to support it.” – Gerald Drasheff
North Bergen Town Administrator Christopher Pianese said that since the hotline’s inception, 1800 calls were received through March, which led to 550 illegal apartments being found.
Drasheff said that this area, with its two, three and four family houses, is a different problem.
“The area just isn’t built to support it,” said Drasheff.
Tricia Tirella may be reached at TriciaT@hudsonreporter.com.