Rental unit limits law OK’d by council

The new ordinance is designed to stop landlords from turning their units into boardinghouse-style quarters, grossly exceeding the maximum number of tenants, in order to make a quick buck.

By: Linda Seida
   LAMBERTVILLE — The City Council passed an ordinance Monday that will heavily penalize landlords who take advantage of immigrants and jeopardize the safety of neighbors by cramming too many people into small apartments, but little provision was made for the tenants who will face ejection if caught.
   The new rental law is designed to stop landlords from turning their rental units into boardinghouse-style quarters, grossly exceeding the maximum allowable number of tenants to make a quick buck.
   Usually, the landlords cram between 20 and 40 people into a small living space, according to council President Cynthia Ege.
   Under the new law, the maximum number of occupants must be certified in a landlord registration statement. Every room occupied for sleeping by one occupant must have at least 70 square feet of floor area. Every room occupied for sleeping by more than one person must have at least 50 square feet for each occupant.
   Every room containing habitable space must contain at least one window capable of being opened or another opening that leads directly to the street, a yard, a courtyard or other open space.
   Each dwelling unit must have a full bathroom and a kitchen, including a stove and a sink.
   Officials say these boardinghouses have cropped up in all areas of the city, coming to light only when neighbors complain about the increased levels of noise, garbage, all-night activity and vehicles. In one instance on York Street in 2004, a fire led to the discovery.
   "We think what we have is a fair and good ordinance that doesn’t overburden landlords," Mayor David Del Vecchio said. "It still protects neighbors, it still protects the public, and it prevents landlords from taking advantage of the situation."
   The council made two changes to the proposed ordinance before voting unanimously to make it law.
   The maximum fine for landlords was lowered to $2,000 from the proposed $2,500. State law limits the amount, Mayor Del Vecchio said.
   The proposed ordinance only implied filing a false landlord certification with the city would be recognized as unlawful. The language of the ordinance was changed to spell it out more clearly, Mayor Del Vecchio said.
   "It’s about landlords, about holding landlords accountable to standards," Mayor Del Vecchio said. "We’re willing to do that."
   He emphasized most landlords act responsibly. The ordinance is "the best way" to acknowledge and respect them while still trying to resolve the problem, he said.
   The tenants are mostly illegal Hispanic immigrants, according to neighbors who have spoken about the situation at council meetings in recent weeks.
   When an illegal boardinghouse is found, the tenants will be removed. The city will make the services of its public welfare director available to find temporary housing for displaced tenants with the cost to be recouped from the landlords.
   "We will certainly make Bambi Kuhl, our welfare director, available if anyone needs help," Mayor Del Vecchio said. "The real question is, what is the landlord going to do?"
   Ultimately, "it’s a civil matter between the landlord and the tenant," the mayor said the council was advised by the city’s attorney.
   The new ordinance could go into effect within 30 to 45 days. First it must be published, and then 20 days later it becomes law.
   The city intends to examine the ordinance in six months to see if it’s working as intended.
   "It was Cindy (Ege’s) idea to look at the ordinance in another six months, and we’re going to do that," Mayor Del Vecchio said.
   This is the first ordinance to prevent rental housing from turning into boardinghouse units without city oversight. Before now, there was little the city could do to stem the problem.
   An ordinance was introduced Jan. 1 at the request of numerous members of the community, according to Mayor Del Vecchio. It was recrafted, and the second incarnation was introduced earlier this month.