407 West State Street, Trenton, NJ 08618  (609)695-3481
 NJLM logo 

William G. Dressel Jr, Executive Director - Michael J. Darcey, CAE, Asst Executive Director

John J. Delaney Jr.
John J. Delaney Jr.
Mayor, Morristown

Eric Maurer
Eric Maurer
Business Administrator
Morristown

Overcrowded Housing
How To Stop Renters from Risking Their Lives

Overcrowded room in attic
Morristown and other municipalities have chosen to make overcrowding illegal and then take enforcement action against violators

Twenty-three beds in a modest single-family house.  Forty people living in a four-family apartment building. Twenty-two people in a house with electrical zip cords running from floor to floor.  Six families in two apartments divided up with plywood barriers.  Single bedrooms rented at $600 apiece to three adults.  These were all situations discovered at Morristown fire scenes in recent years.  What they shared was the accident of good fortune – had the fire in any of these buildings occurred at a different time of day, there could have been multiple fatalities. 

Overcrowding of housing, commonly known as ‘stacking,’ is detrimental to a community.  It increases congestion, diminishing the quality of life.  It increases the demand on public services, without providing an additional ratable base to pay for those services.  It rapidly deteriorates the buildings in which it occurs, blighting neighborhoods and eroding the tax base.  It also gives rise to various social issues involving tension in neighborhoods.

But most of all, it creates a public safety risk.  It’s not just that more people are at risk should a particular building happen to catch fire.  Overcrowding is also associated with and indeed causes other conditions that increase the risk of fire -- make-shift cooking facilities in bedrooms; electric or kerosene heaters to heat attics, basements and enclosed porches used as living space; more appliances that overload substandard electrical wiring; extension cords and makeshift wiring to provide electricity.  If there is a fire, makeshift walls prevent escape by occupants and/or effective firefighting.   In dense communities such as Morristown, a fire occurring in one building can rapidly spread to another, jeopardizing the lives, safety and homes of other residents.  This is a serious problem, and needs to be dealt with accordingly.  Further, the lives of public safety personnel – police and fire – are put at greater risk when they must respond to these locations.

Morristown is not the only municipality to face this problem – it is becoming more and more prevalent in both urban and suburban communities, not only in New Jersey but throughout the country.  Our search for approaches to address the problem has led us to conversations with officials from Dover, Red Bank, Trenton, Roxbury, Parsippany-Troy Hills, and others all seeking the same answers.  A recent New York Times article reports the same problems in such places as Farmingville, New York, and Danbury Connecticut.

The New York Times article also points to a link between the presence of home overcrowding, and the presence of numbers of illegal immigrants, many of whom work as day laborers.  Although by no means all overcrowding is done by illegal immigrants, and conversely, there are illegal immigrants who do not live in overcrowded conditions, the two problems (overcrowding and illegal immigrants) are undeniably interrelated.  The New York Times article also notes that local governments are left to deal with the fallout of a lack of coherent federal immigration policy and the enforcement of federal laws.  Part of this fall-out is increased stacking.

Municipalities in New Jersey already have the same power under state law to legislate against overcrowding as they do against a whole host of other acts and conditions that are detrimental to the public health, safety and welfare.  Morristown and other municipalities have chosen to make overcrowding illegal and then take enforcement action against violators.  The reason is simple economics.  The additional rent from illegal occupants paying $500 per room or $200 per bed can far exceed $1,250 for just one dwelling, even for one month.  With due process, it can take months for overcrowding to be detected, confirmed by inspection or surveillance, and then adjudicated in court.  A landlord – or a tenant illegally subletting space – can pay a $1,250 fine and still make lots of money.  Without a sufficient deterrent, it will be impossible to eliminate stacking, no matter how much enforcement effort takes place.

At the request of Morristown’s Mayor and Council, State Senator Anthony Bucco introduced state legislation (S-1990) to increase the fines that municipalities may impose for overcrowding violations, to $2,500 for a first offense, $5,000 for a second offense, and $10,000 for a third offense.  Regrettably, this bill remains stalled in the legislature.

Before
After
Too many people in one home can lead to tragedy. Municipal leaders in Morristown are using all the tools at their disposal to keep this problem in check.

Without the ability to impose individual fines greater than $1,250, the Town of Morristown has been creative in finding ways to maximize the economic penalty for “stacking” offenders.  We make sure that all violations we find are cited, not just the overcrowding itself.  This often requires us to invoke various codes – uniform construction, fire, our local rent leveling – as well as zoning and property maintenance.  When we can document that the violation has continued unabated over a period of time, we seek daily fines. Recently, we referred to both the Internal Revenue Service and the New Jersey Division of Taxation the names of individuals convicted of operating illegal rooming house or having extra dwelling units, assuming that they were collecting rent that was likely not to have been reported as income.

We have also notified mortgage companies, since the illegal use may also violate the terms of either the mortgage or the insurance policy that protects the mortgagor’s financial interest.  When we found that one particular mortgage company had financed a large number of the units with illegal occupancies (with the property owner seemingly being unable to afford the mortgage payment without the illegal rent) we reported the matter to the New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance.  And finally, when there are subsequent violations by the same offender, we are seeking jail time.

Morristown is also taking steps to improve public information about this problem.  The Town Council has recently modified an existing local code provision that requires a “Certificate of Habitability” before any dwelling unit can be re-occupied so that the unit is measured to determine the maximum occupancy, with this information required to be given to the new occupant.  The same ordinance also requires that any realtor for a buyer or tenant to certify that he or she is unaware of any intent by the new occupant to use or occupy the dwelling illegally. 

A municipality wishing to address  a stacking problem should develop a strategy involving the following components:

  1. Strong codes that clearly prohibit the detrimental conditions
  2. Public information to educate resident and property owners about the rules; involvement of neighborhoods
  3. Sufficient staffing to do code enforcement, including off-hour inspections, using warrants where necessary to gain access
  4. Cooperation among departments – zoning officer, housing & property maintenance inspectors (if different), building department, police, fire, & municipal prosecutor
  5. Looking for the signs – extra mailboxes, multiple satellite dishes, high water use, numbers of cars and bicycles, amount of garbage – and involving residents to watch their neighborhoods, giving them a definite place in the government to report problems.
  6. Municipal court judges who understand the seriousness of the problem and are willing to impose penalties sufficient to serve as deterrent, including jail time
  7. Following the money – Using the IRS, mortgage companies, NJ Department of Insurance & Banking, multiple violations, daily penalties

 

Municipalities also need the help of federal government to address immigration issues, and the state government to pass legislation allowing larger fines.  They can also help by enforcement of other laws, such as the tax codes if a municipality reports the money-making enterprises.

With New Jersey having expensive real estate and the highest population density of any state, there are going to be economic pressures contributing to overcrowding.  We cannot, however, allow NJLM - How to Stop Renters from risking their lives

407 West State Street, Trenton, NJ 08618  (609)695-3481
 NJLM logo 

William G. Dressel Jr, Executive Director - Michael J. Darcey, CAE, Asst Executive Director

John J. Delaney Jr.
John J. Delaney Jr.
Mayor, Morristown

Eric Maurer
Eric Maurer
Business Administrator
Morristown

Overcrowded Housing
How To Stop Renters from Risking Their Lives

Overcrowded room in attic
Morristown and other municipalities have chosen to make overcrowding illegal and then take enforcement action against violators

Twenty-three beds in a modest single-family house.  Forty people living in a four-family apartment building. Twenty-two people in a house with electrical zip cords running from floor to floor.  Six families in two apartments divided up with plywood barriers.  Single bedrooms rented at $600 apiece to three adults.  These were all situations discovered at Morristown fire scenes in recent years.  What they shared was the accident of good fortune – had the fire in any of these buildings occurred at a different time of day, there could have been multiple fatalities. 

Overcrowding of housing, commonly known as ‘stacking,’ is detrimental to a community.  It increases congestion, diminishing the quality of life.  It increases the demand on public services, without providing an additional ratable base to pay for those services.  It rapidly deteriorates the buildings in which it occurs, blighting neighborhoods and eroding the tax base.  It also gives rise to various social issues involving tension in neighborhoods.

But most of all, it creates a public safety risk.  It’s not just that more people are at risk should a particular building happen to catch fire.  Overcrowding is also associated with and indeed causes other conditions that increase the risk of fire -- make-shift cooking facilities in bedrooms; electric or kerosene heaters to heat attics, basements and enclosed porches used as living space; more appliances that overload substandard electrical wiring; extension cords and makeshift wiring to provide electricity.  If there is a fire, makeshift walls prevent escape by occupants and/or effective firefighting.   In dense communities such as Morristown, a fire occurring in one building can rapidly spread to another, jeopardizing the lives, safety and homes of other residents.  This is a serious problem, and needs to be dealt with accordingly.  Further, the lives of public safety personnel – police and fire – are put at greater risk when they must respond to these locations.

Morristown is not the only municipality to face this problem – it is becoming more and more prevalent in both urban and suburban communities, not only in New Jersey but throughout the country.  Our search for approaches to address the problem has led us to conversations with officials from Dover, Red Bank, Trenton, Roxbury, Parsippany-Troy Hills, and others all seeking the same answers.  A recent New York Times article reports the same problems in such places as Farmingville, New York, and Danbury Connecticut.

The New York Times article also points to a link between the presence of home overcrowding, and the presence of numbers of illegal immigrants, many of whom work as day laborers.  Although by no means all overcrowding is done by illegal immigrants, and conversely, there are illegal immigrants who do not live in overcrowded conditions, the two problems (overcrowding and illegal immigrants) are undeniably interrelated.  The New York Times article also notes that local governments are left to deal with the fallout of a lack of coherent federal immigration policy and the enforcement of federal laws.  Part of this fall-out is increased stacking.

Municipalities in New Jersey already have the same power under state law to legislate against overcrowding as they do against a whole host of other acts and conditions that are detrimental to the public health, safety and welfare.  Morristown and other municipalities have chosen to make overcrowding illegal and then take enforcement action against violators.  The reason is simple economics.  The additional rent from illegal occupants paying $500 per room or $200 per bed can far exceed $1,250 for just one dwelling, even for one month.  With due process, it can take months for overcrowding to be detected, confirmed by inspection or surveillance, and then adjudicated in court.  A landlord – or a tenant illegally subletting space – can pay a $1,250 fine and still make lots of money.  Without a sufficient deterrent, it will be impossible to eliminate stacking, no matter how much enforcement effort takes place.

At the request of Morristown’s Mayor and Council, State Senator Anthony Bucco introduced state legislation (S-1990) to increase the fines that municipalities may impose for overcrowding violations, to $2,500 for a first offense, $5,000 for a second offense, and $10,000 for a third offense.  Regrettably, this bill remains stalled in the legislature.

Before
After
Too many people in one home can lead to tragedy. Municipal leaders in Morristown are using all the tools at their disposal to keep this problem in check.

Without the ability to impose individual fines greater than $1,250, the Town of Morristown has been creative in finding ways to maximize the economic penalty for “stacking” offenders.  We make sure that all violations we find are cited, not just the overcrowding itself.  This often requires us to invoke various codes – uniform construction, fire, our local rent leveling – as well as zoning and property maintenance.  When we can document that the violation has continued unabated over a period of time, we seek daily fines. Recently, we referred to both the Internal Revenue Service and the New Jersey Division of Taxation the names of individuals convicted of operating illegal rooming house or having extra dwelling units, assuming that they were collecting rent that was likely not to have been reported as income.

We have also notified mortgage companies, since the illegal use may also violate the terms of either the mortgage or the insurance policy that protects the mortgagor’s financial interest.  When we found that one particular mortgage company had financed a large number of the units with illegal occupancies (with the property owner seemingly being unable to afford the mortgage payment without the illegal rent) we reported the matter to the New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance.  And finally, when there are subsequent violations by the same offender, we are seeking jail time.

Morristown is also taking steps to improve public information about this problem.  The Town Council has recently modified an existing local code provision that requires a “Certificate of Habitability” before any dwelling unit can be re-occupied so that the unit is measured to determine the maximum occupancy, with this information required to be given to the new occupant.  The same ordinance also requires that any realtor for a buyer or tenant to certify that he or she is unaware of any intent by the new occupant to use or occupy the dwelling illegally. 

A municipality wishing to address  a stacking problem should develop a strategy involving the following components:

  1. Strong codes that clearly prohibit the detrimental conditions
  2. Public information to educate resident and property owners about the rules; involvement of neighborhoods
  3. Sufficient staffing to do code enforcement, including off-hour inspections, using warrants where necessary to gain access
  4. Cooperation among departments – zoning officer, housing & property maintenance inspectors (if different), building department, police, fire, & municipal prosecutor
  5. Looking for the signs – extra mailboxes, multiple satellite dishes, high water use, numbers of cars and bicycles, amount of garbage – and involving residents to watch their neighborhoods, giving them a definite place in the government to report problems.
  6. Municipal court judges who understand the seriousness of the problem and are willing to impose penalties sufficient to serve as deterrent, including jail time
  7. Following the money – Using the IRS, mortgage companies, NJ Department of Insurance & Banking, multiple violations, daily penalties

 

Municipalities also need the help of federal government to address immigration issues, and the state government to pass legislation allowing larger fines.  They can also help by enforcement of other laws, such as the tax codes if a municipality reports the money-making enterprises.

With New Jersey having expensive real estate and the highest population density of any state, there are going to be economic pressures contributing to overcrowding.  We cannot, however, allow these pressures to result in the degradation of our communities or to jeopardize public safety.  We need to be vigilant and use all the tools at our disposal to keep this problem in check.



Feature Article in December 2005, New Jersey Municipalities