By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
Overcrowding of rental homes is on the decline in Red Bank, borough officials say, citing two years of enforcement data.
The purported drop is occurring in part because the borough adopted stricter rules and the code enforcement department is keeping a closer eye out for tell-tale signs of violations, says Administrator Stanley Sickels.
In 2008, the borough handed out 46 summonses to landlords that resulted in $123,000 in fines. In 2009, both those totals fell, to $73,000 on 33 total summonses written.
Still the problem persists. Sickels says he’s seen a family of four crammed into a bedroom with mini-fridges and microwaves at the end of a trail of extension cords. He’s seen closets rented out. Corners of a basement divied up, with just bedsheets separating sleeping areas.
“The problem has been there’s a number of people who can’t buy houses or afford to pay rents for various reasons,” he told redbankgreen. “So leaseholders will sublet, sometimes a bedroom or on a daily basis.”
“It’s gone down somewhat,” he said. “The fines can add up. People have gone to jail.”
One property owner, Iris Acevedo, of Eatontown, came close to going to jail in 2008. After racking up nearly $40,000 in fines for citations issued on two different properties, on West Sunset Avenue and Shrewsbury Avenue, Sickels said she was given a suspended 90-day sentence. That seems to have worked, he said, because she hasn’t been a problem since.
Others have been repeat offenders. According to borough records, A Connecticut man, Martin Ortner, was cited 13 times in 2009 for his property at 117 Catherine Street; in 2008, he was cited eight times for that property, and twice for another one on Shrewsbury Avenue.
Another, musician Brian Kirk, received eight citations for a property he owns on Shrewsbury Avenue.
Then there’s 21 Linden Place Associates LLC, which received 18 summonses for overcrowding at 21 Linden Place last year. The name of the landlord isn’t on file at borough hall, but records indicate a mailing address of 234 River Road in Red Bank.
None of the above property owners were available for comment when reached by redbankgreen.
Joyce Kalkucki, however, was quite forthcoming about her one experience getting nabbed for overcrowding. She echoed a complaint that Sickels said is common among property owners: that they simply did not know it was happening.
Kalkucki said she and her husband, Chris, rented out their 299 Shrewsbury Avenue property to three people. Before they knew it, code enforcement had informed them that they were being cited for having 12 people in the home.
“We didn’t even know that that the overcrowding was there. We rented to three people and they overcrowded the place,” she said.
It was a hard, painful lesson to learn, she said. Those tenants were evicted and new tenants are now in the home, she said.
Now, she says, “I keep a sharp eye. I’ve just got to watch it more to see what they’re doing. Every month, call, then go take a look.”
Anyone who has purchased property in Red Bank since 2003 shouldn’t have the fallback argument of ignorance, though. That’s when the borough passed an ordinance requiring landlords to register tenants’ names with the town. And an older ordinance states that landlords are responsible to maintain the property accordingly, including staying on top of who’s living there. If a landlord can prove he’s done all he can to monitor the property, Sickels said the summons will be revoked and the tenants cited.
The goal, he said, is safety. As head fire official in the code office, Sickels can cue up horror stories from the 1970s and ‘8os, before regulations were so stringent, when fires caused by overcrowding killed people.
“We tell the property owners when they come to town, ‘you’d rather we bring this to your attention now before there’s a problem, rather than two o’clock in the morning and this place is on fire and people are missing,’ ” Sickels said.
So far this year, the borough appears to be on pace to be higher than last year, but Sickels said projecting is nearly impossible and an inaccurate way to gauge the borough’s progress in educating landlords of the rules and enforcing them. And despite those efforts, the number of people caught overcrowding can spike, he said.
But officials hope that fines levied to the landlords $500 minimum for the first offense and $1,250 as the maximum fine will serve as a deterrent.
Here’s the official list of offenders for each year: