Norwalk Council considers illegal apartment issue

Thursday’s Common Council Public Safety & General Government Committee virtual meeting.

NORWALK, Conn. — Legal prohibitions prevent Planning and Zoning inspectors from cracking down on illegal apartments in many instances, Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin said Thursday.

Kleppin spoke to the Common Council Public Safety & General Government Committee in an conversation Chairwoman Jenn McMurrer (D-District C) said she’d been trying to arrange for months. After commentary touching on resident safety and the need for affordable housing, one suggestion emerged: a webpage where residents could learn some basic indicators that an apartment is illegal.

Kleppin said there are a primary distinction in how the City approaches suspected issues, whether it’s a single-family or two-family home or a multi-family structure. P&Z doesn’t have the ability to go on the property of a lesser-density structure, even if there are eight cars parked there and multiple satellite dishes. But the Fire Marshal and the Health Department have jurisdiction over multifamily homes and that sometimes leads to an investigation.

P&Z staff have queried the State’s local housing prosecutor to learn the possibilities for enforcement, such as when consistent complaints are coming in on an uncooperative property owner, Kleppin said. “But basically, the housing prosecutor told us, you know, the kind of evidence that you’re citing and that you may see on the property is not going to fly with the court. It’s not going to get you into the property, you’re not going to get a warrant to get in and look at the property, there’s none of that’s going to happen,” Kleppin said.

There may be hope as a new housing prosecutor has been appointed and P&Z is going to get a fresh perspective on what the law allows “and if there are changes that we can make,” Kleppin said.

But even the phrase “single-family home” might be misleading, as the definition of “family” in both State Statute and Norwalk zoning regulations is basically, “any number of individuals related by blood or marriage,” Kleppin said.

“There are more people oftentimes residing in a residence than, you know, we typically had thought of previously. So, you could have a typical family of four, plus they could have, you know, mother-in-law, father-in-law, three cousins and aunt and uncle all living in a single-family house,” Kleppin said. “And that’s completely legal, there’s nothing the city could do via ordinance or anything else to stop that.”

P&Z receives on average 125 complaints a year, Kleppin said. Two weeks ago, the total for this calendar year was 111, so it’s about on track.

There are about 25-30 complaints of illegal apartments every year, he said. It’s about 25 complaints for 2022.

P&Z closes out about 73 zoning violations a year, according to Kleppin. Often people will call in what they think is a zoning violation but “it’s not really a zoning issue.”

Council member Bryan Meek (R-District D) asked if P&Z could check water consumption to calculate the likelihood that a building has an illegal situation inside.

“I would have to check with the law department to see if that’s something we legally could do,” Kleppin replied. “My guess is from our prior conversation with the housing prosecutor, that would not be something we could do. … I’m happy to ask them.”

“I know other towns are doing that,” Meek said.

Council member Nicol Ayers (D-District A) was among those stressing concerns for residents’ safety. Some people are in illegal apartments because that’s all they can afford.

Council member Heidi Alterman (D-District D) said she’d be making charitable visits a couple of years ago and found a residence with two full families in it, “each family had six or more people living in one room, separated by a curtain.” The place was warm even though it was December and the occupants told her to be careful because they were keeping the oven door open to provide heat.

“They said that the landlord turns off their heat, if anybody in the building hasn’t paid their rent on time,” she said. The most “shocking” thing was they were paying at least $1,600 a month in rent and, “I think they were just worried nobody else would rent to them. And some of them literally had only been here like a week or two, they had just immigrated here…. It was obscene, how much money that people were charging for the situation they were living in.”

She discussed the situation with someone who knew the family, who begged her not to say anything because they would just get kicked out, she said. She referred them to the Norwalk Housing Authority. “It was terrifying to me there were children living where they were using their oven to heat the place.”

She asked Kleppin to verify her impression that “if they own a one family dwelling, there’s nothing you can do unless somebody either makes an outside complaint or a resident within makes a complaint.”

“That’s part of it,” Kleppin said. If P&Z has determined someone is a bad actor, “we really need to have proof that we’ve obtained.” Drone footage is unallowable. “We have to physically get on the property and see it. And oftentimes that means getting permission to get on the property so that sometimes we have to follow steps that don’t seem appropriate or fair. But that’s just the way the courts view things.”

One of the most common ways the City finds an illegal apartment is through a medical call or a call to the police, Deputy Fire Marshal Kirk McDonald said. First responders hold the scene open if the situation is unsafe and the Fire Marshal’s Office determines what kind of resources are required.

Sometimes the tenants are relocated, Kleppin said. But “a single or two family, it’s a completely different set of rules.” If there are kids, “maybe we could try to get a State agency involved.”

Council member Diana Révolus (D-District B) said she once rented a place with “a full kitchen, bathroom, four bedrooms, the works” but she didn’t realize it was illegal.

“Sometimes illegal apartments are gorgeous, they’re beautiful units, well done. And they’re really nice. But they’re completely illegal one way or another,” Kleppin said.

“We’ve actually kind of come across some circumstances where an individual may buy a home with say, a basement apartment, and not even be aware that it doesn’t meet the specific qualifications to be legal,” McDonald said. “It may be something as simple as just not having the proper ceiling height.”

Révolus suggested the webpage to outline indicators that an apartment is illegal. McDonald mentioned bedrooms needing windows of a certain size to allow people to escape through them , smoke detectors and ceilings that are at least seven feet high.

“I think that’s a really great idea, because I’m always about, you know, making it very obvious what the rules are/aren’t and communicating that very clearly to our constituents,” McMurrer said.

Kleppin also described units that “no one should live in under any circumstances.” Basement units are “the most problematic” and staff found one where “I don’t even know if it has five feet of ceiling space in there. And it was behind like a boiler, and it was just completely an uninhabitable space that should never have been occupied.”

He said, “If we can get confirmation that there’s an illegal apartment there, then we can take swift action, and illegal apartments and rooming houses are two of the items that we prioritize in terms of enforcement.”

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Jason Milligan October 28, 2022 at 7:36 am

The word ILLEGAL is used to often.

Zoning non compliant is not illegal.

It could mean you have a shed too close to your property line, a dump truck or RV parked in your driveway, or a patio that is too big.

We should really draw a distinction between zoning non compliant and life & safety issues.

The C zone allows a max of 2 units except many of the buildings were built before 1929 which is when Zoning was invented in Norwalk.

If you have a 3 family in the C zone that was built in 1928 then it is legally non conforming, or grandfathered.

Many times it was the 3rd floor that got a 3rd apartment.

A building right next door could have added a 3rd floor apartment in 1930, 1960, or 1980 that is completely safe that is ILLEGAL.

There is never enough affordable apartments.

Changing the zoning rules would help create a system where affordable apartments are easier for people to build or add.

Zoning could just make the C zone allow 3 or 4 units and suddenly there would be 1000 less “Illegal” apartments.

The B zone does not allow multi-family housing. You can build a subordinate unit (in-law) apartment. It is “Illegal” to rent both units out.

The D zone and other zones allow many of apartments but parking is a big limitation. 2 legal parking spaces per unit was required for a long time in Norwalk. 5 units required 10 spaces. If you only have 9 then there could be an “Illegal” apartment.

Zoning is the problem!
Changing the rules would make many, many apartments “legal”

That would not address the life and safety issues which is a different story.

My advise is to focus on life and safety.

Loosen the zone rules to allow for more affordable apartments.

Johnny cardamone October 28, 2022 at 9:51 am

Greed and stupidity are the first things that come to mind👎🏽🥵 it will take a fire where people and children die before anything really changes😩 God forbid🙏🏼 and meanwhile the Biden administration keeps an open border sex trafficking drugs illegal immigration and these poor people are thrown into our communities that we can barely afford to live in😩 I love the people of Central America but I hate the democratic mafia and the way the Biden administration is ruining so many peoples lives just to stay in power👎🏽 that is what this is all about! and our own greedy local politicians who are selling out our town to the highroller New York highest bidders so senior people can’t afford to live here! wake up!

Lisa Brinton October 28, 2022 at 11:25 am

A topic near and dear to my heart. Anyone on the council being called a ‘racist’ as I was by a certain state senator and mayor for making this a campaign issue in 2019? Both our police and fire department know all too well how extensive this issue is, as do neighborhoods blighted with too many cars and other excesses associated with too many people. Landlords who take advantage of lax city enforcement, exploit their tenants with high (cash only) rents or put them at risk for unsafe conditions. If, as some council members point out, these units are necessary, then how about the city getting these (safe) units on the tax rolls? If city hall can take a single family home and put it up for auction for not paying their property tax bill, how about collecting appropriate taxes from those cheating the system? How much longer can we turn a blind eye?

Michael McGuire October 28, 2022 at 6:47 pm

I think the bigger issue here is not the number of units. But the number of people living in one unit. Example, having a three-bedroom apartment in which three entire families live in that one apartment, as in one entire family in each bedroom.

This is often not the owners doing. It is often the initial renter ‘renting’ out the various bedrooms to others. This appears to be rampant. I saw this just yesterday. Any bedroom with an exterior lock, or pad lock is a sure sign this is going on.

I have seen this repeatedly in every urban area of we work in for the past 2+ decades.

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