Mayor Neil Pagano and Board of Trustees members were happy to discuss a Journal
News article from last weekend that highlighted the village’s efforts to
crackdown on illegal housing and code violations during their board meeting on
Monday, June 3. The recent fire that displaced 75 people living in a six unit
building on Williams Street, and the evacuation of a North Main Street building
because of code violations have the community talking about code enforcement
and the consistent problem with illegal housing in Port Chester.
“It was a good article that chronicled our efforts for code enforcement,” said Village Manager Chris Steers. “It gave insights into what we’ve been doing so far, how monumental the task is and compared it to other places.”
The Journal News Leah Rae reported:
Port Chester is three years into a code-enforcement crackdown that is trying to rectify a seemingly intractable problem. It’s more ambitious than any such effort in the area, encompassing village wide inspections, criminal prosecutions and a complete revamping of building files.
The village implemented an “amnesty program” last year that acknowledged that many building owners have done work without necessary permits or lack inspections or certificates of occupancy (COs).
The enforcement now requires owners to rectify their paperwork or face fines if they failed to obtain the permits, to close out the permits or to obtain the COs. If the owner applied for amnesty by the April 2013 deadline they would have the opportunity to rectify their situations without facing the regular associated fines.
Steers said that through their efforts, the village has rectified 340 illegal or crowded housing situations over the last three years, issued hundreds of summonses and collected $400,000 in fines, according to Rae.
But while the village has shut down some illegal housing, the crackdown has also had ramifications for homeowners who need to prove their compliance by working with a Building Department that is missing files lost in a flood and that is still trying to clean up the files it still has, Rae reports.
Two speakers at Monday night’s public hearing and two people in Rae’s story explained how the crackdown has affected them.
A new by-the-book approach is requiring sacrifices all over. Anyone looking to sell, buy or refinance could face inordinate delays in obtaining Building Department paperwork — though an amnesty program and an expedited-service option for $200 aim to provide relief. A backlash is brewing over who’s paying the price for the village’s own mess, and what it will really take to clean it all up.
George Ford, who spoke during Monday night’s public speaking session said the amnesty program has rewarded code violators and punished people who do everything by the book.
“I think that’s a terrible program. We are rewarding people who have purposefully taken advantage of this village,” Ford said.
Ford and homeowners quoted in Rae’s article say they have to jump through hoops to fulfill the code enforcement requirements while other landlords known for illegal housing continue to operate. Ford said that he does not think it is fair that landlords with dozens of code violations are allowed to file applications under the amnesty program.
“Why do (we bother to) pay the fees and have the inspections done when you’re doing nothing about the people who don’t do what they are supposed to?” Ford asked.
“We do it every year…where is my reward for doing that?”
“When you have to administer such a program, you cannot lawfully be as selective as some may desire,” Steers said. He added that they are keeping track of those who are incompliant and they will eventually catch up with them. In some, but not all cases, landlords who were incompliant for years are being forced to pay back fines, he said.
Another speaker mentioned Port Chester residents’ fears of being fined or arrested because of the Certificate of Occupancy requirement. He asked if the village could let people know there is no rush.
“Why don’t we take this as a need basis? Why are we loading the system with people panicky because they think they have to get their CO or they’re going to be thrown in jail?”
Steers said that their case by case basis showed that a lack of COs was a more common problem than an exception and the amnesty program aims to help people while they get their documents by alleviating the costs and fines associated.
Steers started to elaborate more but Mayor Pagano told them they should continue the conversation “on the side” because the public speaker’s time was up.
Rae quoted a local homeowner who is trying to refinance a home she bought in 1997 but first needs to rectify paperwork dating back forty years before she bought it. She has documents that show there are no violations but the village considers them worthless, referring to them as predate letters that don’t fulfill their requirements.
Rae quoted another homeowner who owned his one-family home for 50 years and now he needs to get old permits for a bathroom he once added to his home, which is delaying his plan to sell the house.
Village Fire Inspector Kevin Brennan told Rae that the village needs to educate people on the “magnitude of the problem.”
During Monday night’s meeting Pagano said that he wants the
building’s codes documents online so people can see what they are doing any
time, rather than just when it is covered in the news. He also said that he
recognizes the need for some changes to the program and expects to discuss that
at the next meeting.
Also, at the next board meeting, the trustees will vote on a resolution to hire two interns and purchase needed software for the Building Department, which should help them get through back logged files.
Has the code enforcement affected your ability to sell or refinance your home? What do you think of the village's crackdown? Please share your thoughts in the comments.