Efforts to combat crowding paying off

Princeton Borough updates neighborhood on recent court rulings against landlords and other successful enforcement actions.

By: Jennifer Potash
   A joint effort among Princeton Borough officials, the Police Department and the neighbors appears to have made a difference in combating overcrowding in rental properties.
   At a community meeting with the Princeton Borough Police Department and residents of the John-Witherspoon neighborhood Wednesday, members of the department and borough hall staff gave an update on the overcrowding problem, reporting a number of recent court rulings against landlords and other successful enforcement actions.
   Princeton Borough Police Chief Charles Davall, an advocate of community policing, holds regular meetings with various neighborhoods in the borough. The officers assigned to those neighborhoods also attend and listen to the neighbors’ concerns and seek to find solutions or put the residents in contact with borough hall staffers who can help.
   At recent public meetings, some residents expressed frustration that overcrowding persists, despite ordinances the borough adopted two years ago.
   The borough’s ordinances were revised in 2000 to permit inspectors to give summonses without warning to habitual offenders and to authorize summonses when rental properties fail to meet basic health and safety regulations.
   Problems that arise from overcrowded conditions, in which as many as 25 people live in two- or three-bedroom houses in the John-Witherspoon or "tree street" neighborhoods, include garbage strewn around the property and using backyards as makeshift toilets, residents have said.
   Minnie Craig, a Witherspoon Street resident, said a recurring problem takes place when residents put their garbage out in bags, not cans, and sometimes days before the garbage pickup. Princeton Borough Councilwoman Mildred Trotman, who lives on Witherspoon Street and serves as the borough’s police commissioner, said garbage may be set out no earlier than 6 p.m. of the day before scheduled garbage pickup.
   Lt. Dennis McManimon, who oversees the department’s Safe Neighborhoods Unit, told the residents to call him with their complaints.
   Since the borough’s more stringent overcrowding ordinances were upheld in Mercer County Superior Court this year, several cases were successfully prosecuted in municipal court, said William Drake, the borough’s housing inspector.
   In some of the most egregious cases — in which some landlords were found guilty in municipal court — the properties remain vacant, Mr. Drake said.
   "The owners are not able to rent the properties, which is a bigger fine than you could get in municipal court," Mr. Drake said. The fines for the overcrowding ordinance range from a minimum $100 to a maximum $1,000.
   Mr. Drake said he has a list of about 32 problem rental properties his department checks for violations about every two weeks. During the most recent cycle, 19 properties had at least one violation and three properties had multiple problems, he said. The property owners have two weeks to remedy the situation before Mr. Drake takes them to municipal court.
   Some of the summonses he issued to property owners stemmed from neighborhood complaints or from a police investigation of another matter at the property, Mr. Drake said.
   In the matter of police relations with the community, the residents urged the police to make a greater effort to reach out to the younger residents.
   Patrol Officer Bill Perez, also assigned to the Safe Neighborhoods Unit, said the children up to age 12 are very respectful of the police. But adolescence seems to bring out distrust, he said. He noted that police are not as involved in the teen-agers’ school lives as they are with children in the lower grades, where youngsters take part in the DARE and Adopt-a-Cop programs.
   Patrol Officer Sharon Papp, also with the Safe Neighborhoods Unit, said the department offers a program called ABLE, which brings juniors and seniors at Princeton High School to police headquarters to learn about the different aspects of law enforcement.
   Dana Hughes, a Green Street resident and director of the Princeton Young Achievers program at the Clay Street Learning Center, urged the police to seek opportunities to interact with the teen-agers through existing classes at the middle and high school.