By Rockland County Executive Ed Day
My administration has a steadfast commitment to address quality of life issues in Rockland County. Stemming the tide of unsafe, illegal housing and overcrowding is paramount to ensuring the health and safety of our people. This week, we fire the first salvo in a well-orchestrated battle against exploitive absentee landlords and property owners who put lives at risk. It’s called The Rockland Codes Initiative.
From Stony Point to Suffern, jerry-built rooms and shared extension cords have become the norm for thousands of tenants, most on the lower rung of the socioeconomic ladder. And, we’re not alone in Rockland County. All across the region, there’s a growing problem with millions of undocumented immigrants, many living in illegal housing provided by unscrupulous landlords who receive cash for rentals.
Some property owners think that violating health and building codes is no big deal. Some think that chopping up apartments and herding humans like cattle is the cost of doing business. Well, think again.
The Rockland Codes Initiative will utilize the sweeping powers of the County’s sanitary code to inspect dwellings and issue violations, allowing us to fight back against those who think it’s no big deal to take advantage of those who have little voice.
Phase one of the Rockland Codes Initiative consists of four individual components:
Online Reporting: A web-based complaint form on which individuals will confidentially report suspected illegal housing or unsafe living conditions. This process, with a few simple questions, will walk complainants through the steps required to report a specific property and the nature of problems observed. All complaints are kept strictly confidential and never disclosed to the owner of the premises.
Rockland County’s Worst Landlord Watch List: The Rockland Codes Initiative will use digital and social media to expose the landlords and building managers behind some of the county’s most dangerous and dilapidated residential buildings. Rockland County’s Worst Landlords Watch List is the first online resource allowing local tenants and neighbors to learn the identities of the most egregious offenders and to view the number of code violations for a specific property.
Multiple Dwelling Registry Law: To ensure appropriate living conditions for tenants and the safety of emergency personnel, the Multiple Dwelling Registry and Certificate program will enable the Health Department to track and correct health code violations and ensure conditions exist that contribute to the health and safety of the tenants and the volunteer firefighters in the County.
Enhanced Adjudication Process: The adjudication process by which cited violations move through the Board of Health has been improved for greater efficiency and accountability. As a result, the adjudication process will enhance deterrence by increasing the net punishment cost to landlords and property owners who violate the law.
Currently, the law allows for a maximum fine of $2,000 per day for each violation. Mandatory and inflexible penalties on landlords who the violate sanitary codes will break the economic incentive for building owners who withhold heat and hot water from tenants and/or allow properties to fall into general disrepair.
Within the next several months, additional health inspectors will join the Unified Neighborhood Inspection Team (UNIT). Along with the extra manpower in the field, a request for proposal (RFP) has been initiated for additional hearing officers to join the administrative enforcement process.
We’ve made it easy to file a confidential complaint about any property in the county. We’ve also made the process more transparent and more costly for the offenders. We fully expect the program will be self-funding through aggressive enforcement.
We all know that firefighting is dangerous enough, but 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 dedicated first responders to die in a converted attic or hidden stairwell.
Simply put, a landlord must be responsible for his property. Those who don’t play by the rules lower property values of surrounding homes and lower a neighborhood’s quality of life when unsafe and unsanitary conditions persist. They say “money talks.” Now that we are talking about serious fines, we know they will listen and respond.
The Rockland Codes Initiative is the result of hundreds of hours of planning by County Health Commissioner Dr. Patricia Ruppert, County Attorney Thomas Humbach and my executive team. I commend my people for working overtime to develop a comprehensive strategy to stop the madness.
So long as I’m County Executive, the illegal housing business will no longer be “business as usual” in Rockland. If we’re going to respect each other, we need to start with a mutual respect for our laws.