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.”
Reminder: NancyOnNorwalk requires full names from commenters. For more information, go here.