Rockland Codes Initiative is 'Turning Slumlords into Landlords'

John Jordan | June 18, 2019

From left, South Nyack Mayor Bonnie Christian, State Senator James Skoufis, Rockland County Executive Ed Day, County Attorney Thomas Humbach and Deputy Commissioner of Health Catherine Southren Johnson.

SOUTH NYACK—A little over four years ago Rockland County attempted to tackle the issue of dilapidated and unsafe housing by instituting the Rockland Codes Initiative that was touted at the time as a sweeping effort to combat illegal housing and overcrowding in the county.

State, municipal and county officials joined Rockland County Executive Ed Day on May 31 in South Nyack to commemorate the RCI’s fourth anniversary. The program that utilizes the broad powers of the Rockland County Department of Health and the county’s Sanitary Code has reaped impressive results.

County Executive Day noted that in the RCI’s first four years 5,305 housing complaints were made; 22,225 inspections were performed and 28,279 violations were issued that resulted in $1,701,033 in fines assessed over the four years of the initiative.

Day explained that the RCI was launched after Rockland County Attorney Tom Humbach worked with the county’s Department of Health, headed by Commissioner Patricia Ruppert, to find a way to go after the slumlords that were preying on county residents.

The Health Department oversees the Unified Neighborhood Inspection Team that confirms various neighborhood housing concerns through property inspections, surveys and comprehensive investigations of possible sanitary code violations.

Experienced UNIT members respond to complaints submitted to the Health Department and work diligently with the Board of Health to resolve the issues. Remedies may include substantial fines for offending property owners, referrals to departments and agencies within local government and assisting residents in need of housing and/or health guidance.

An RCI inspector begins a tour showing numerous sanitary code violations at 25 Fairview Ave. in Spring Valley. The single-family home currently has 48 violations, according to county officials.

The RCI also included the launch of the Multiple Dwelling Registry that requires all owners of dwellings with three or more rental units, and all rooming houses to register and obtain a Multiple Dwelling Rental Certificate. Failure to comply is a violation of Article XIII, which may result in penalties of $2,000 per day.

The program includes a website linked to the county government’s website where county residents can make confidential complaints. Residents can also call the Health Department to lodge a complaint. In addition, the Health Department works with local volunteer firefighters and building departments to learn of possible unsafe housing.

Once a complaint is made, inspectors from the Department of Health visit a location. They look for conditions that might violate the county sanitary code, such as unsafe and overcrowded housing, for example.

Since the RCI has been in place, Day noted, “Dangerous and disgusting conditions were often found all across our county.”

The County Executive at the press conference said that while the county has assessed more than $1.7 million in fines based on the RCI program, the initiative is geared to improving safety and making sure police and first responders are not injured when entering what he termed were “death traps.”

“We are sending a message. Using the Sanitary Code, we are getting compliance; we are seeing success. They are making the repairs they need to make. We are turning slumlords into landlords,” Day said.

He added, “We want landlords to maintain their rental properties in accordance with health and sanitary codes so that the families—men, women and children—who live there are safe.”

While Day believes that the county’s housing stock has improved significantly due in part to the program he added, “Is this fight over? Not even close. But understand something, we will not stop.”

Also on hand at the press conference were Deputy Commissioner of Health Kate Johnson Southren, County Attorney Humbach, Director of Fire and Emergency Services Chris Kear and New York State Senator James Skoufis.

Senator Skoufis, who launched an investigation in March into housing conditions and code enforcement outside of New York City, praised the RCI program.

Skoufis, who is chairman of the New York State Senate Committee on Investigations and Government Operations, noted that officials with the Rockland County Department of Health recently testified at a hearing in Albany on the beneficial results of the RCI program.

“Make no mistake we are going to be highlighting the Rockland Code Initiative success,” Sen. Skoufis said. “In our report we are going to be encouraging that we take it statewide.”

The ongoing State Senate investigation is specifically examining housing conditions and code enforcement in the City of Newburgh, Town of Ramapo, City of Mount Vernon and City of Albany.

John Jordan
Editor, Real Estate In-Depth