In November of 2006, North Bergen began investigating the abundance of illegal apartments – small spaces often carved out of bigger apartments, usually in violation of health and housing codes – by establishing a hotline allowing anonymous callers to report potential infractions.
Since then, more than 4,000 complaints about illegal apartments have been investigated, according to Township Administrator Chris Pianese. Of the 4,000, 950 violations have been corrected, and another 900 are “open,” pending possible penalties.
The town defines an illegal apartment as one that: has no Certificate of Occupancy, fails to meet the requirements of the State Tenant Housing Law, was created without the issuance of any necessary plumbing, electrical or building permits, or fails to meet requirements for minimum light, ventilation, floor area per occupant, ceiling height, or other health and safety regulations.
The township receives an upwards of five to 10 calls per day reporting potential illegal apartments.
Some units lack bathrooms, showers, or fire exits. Others are carved out of bigger apartments, and are sometimes used to house illegal aliens. Town officials once noted a case where a two-family house had 25 people living in it.
According to Phil Swibinski, town spokesman, $200,000 in fines were collected after three years of cracking down. In 2009, the Board of Commissioners adopted an ordinance raising fines for violations. For a first violation, a fine of up to $750 a day or 10 days in jail for each violation can be imposed. Someone committing a second offense may pay up to $1,200 or spend 20 days in jail. The ordinance also raised fines for repeat offenders, which are common.
According to Pianese, the township receives an upwards of five to 10 calls per day reporting potential illegal apartments, all of which are investigated. The process begins by initially examining property records and files, and then if necessary, taking an actual look at the property.
“We investigate every single complaint,” said Pianese, who added that re-inspection occurs within six months.
Town Spokesman Phil Swibinski said, “The Construction Code Office, Health Department, housing official, fire official and Police Department all work together on enforcement.”
With such a large number of investigations and hearings, Pianese indicated that North Bergen dedicates one day per week to dealing with illegal apartment cases in court, a process that Pianese says the town doesn’t plan to change.
Pays for itself
Pianese said the town has collected over $400,000 in fines since 2006.
“It seems like a big number,” said Pianese, “but quite honestly the program pretty much pays for itself.”
Pianese said much of the revenue pays the inspectors and attorneys.
“This was never meant to be a moneymaker,” added Pianese. “This was meant to deter illegal apartments.”
Pianese noted that a red flag often is triggered when people see multiple cars parking at what appears to be a one-family household. “When we uncover a number of illegal [apartments] within one specific area, it clearly frees up street parking,” he said.
For more information on the illegal apartment hotline, visit http://www.northbergen.org/Departments/Hotline/.
Stephen LaMarca may be reached at email@example.com.