SPRING VALLEY – A Rockland inspector filed multiple violations potentially carrying heavy fines against the landlord of a house where two dozen men, women, and children lived in dangerous, rundown conditions in makeshift bedrooms.
The illegal living quarters at 3 George St. were created in the basement, attic and middle floors with partitions constructed to offer a semblance of privacy, Rockland Office of Building and Codes officials said Thursday. The office was created after the state deputized the county to take over Spring Valley’s code enforcement and inspections.
There were nine families – including five children – among the two dozen people living in the rooming house. They lived in cordoned-off rooms, including four illegal units on the first floor, while people slept in the basement and in the garage, officials said. The dining areas and living room were walled off into private living space.
The three illegal basement bedrooms included mattresses on the cement floor, without any means to escape during a fire. Heaters were used to fight off the cold with electrical wires strewn haphazardly across the house, officials said. No smoke detectors or carbon monoxide monitors were found.
Building Inspector Jackenton Lavalasse said the families and others lived in nine makeshift bedrooms. Lavalasse, a village inspector since 2009, has been assigned to the Rockland Office of Building and Codes.
The house had been closed down and tenants vacated earlier this month. The Building and Codes Office officials will handle the prosecution of the violations before an administrative panel formed as part of the takeover of Spring Valley’s inspections and enforcement of sate fire and building codes.
The creation of sleeping units inside houses is common in Spring Valley and other parts of Rockland County, but potentially dangerous and in violation of zoning, and building and fire codes. The situations pose a danger when firefighters respond and don’t know the layout of the house.
Lavalasse described the living conditions at the George Street house as unsafe.
He said the tenants told him they paid the owner, Ronnie Joseph, as much as $800 per bedroom. The tenants shared a kitchen and two bathrooms.
Joseph declined comment.
“I couldn’t allow people to live in the potential hazards, especially the children,” Lavalasse said during a news conference at the house.
The George Street house, off Division Street and Route 45, made the priority list of the estimated 100 worse buildings with the most egregious violations in Spring Valley, said Edward Markunas, the director of the Rockland Office of Building and Codes.
Markunas said more than 800 buildings are overdue for inspections, among the several thousands of businesses, rental buildings and private schools on an inspection schedule.
The most serious issues, Markunas added, are “the living conditions people, especially children, are living in.” He cited the illegal construction, the makeshift use of electrical cords and appliances that created fire hazards.
Markunas said that since starting this week, inspectors have been to 20 to 25 buildings of the worst 100. He said violations have not yet been filed for administrative hearings and potential fines of up to $5,000 a day.
In preparation for enforcing state building and fire safety codes in Spring Valley, Rockland County has instituted a 30-day moratorium on building permits and applications. The office is targeting the worse building with plans to then start a schedule of inspections and fees.
The office has a $1.5 million budget approved by the Rockland Legislature. The county office has contracted with 20 inspectors, including several village employees, and could add more if needed, officials said.
County Executive Ed Day hopes the costs will be offset by state grants since New York deputized the county and revenues from fines and inspections fees. He said the money would go back to Spring Valley when the state determines the village is capable of responsibly administrating code enforcement.
“Our goal is to do what we can to protect the residents, visitors and first responders,” Day said. “We’re not looking to punish people. We want compliance. Everyone will be treated equally.”
Fatal fire spurred action
Spring Valley is cooperating with the county office. The village first balked, but agreed to the state order that copies of building department files must be provided to the county.
Mayor Alan Simon has said the state interference violates the village’s autonomy. He hired a civil rights attorney and another law firm to represent the village’s interests.
The state had warned the village for years about its inspections and documentation. The state assigned monitors to oversee the building department about five years ago, instead of ordering a takeover.
The building department has been short-staffed for years by the financially strapped village long before Simon took office four years ago. Firefighters and some inspectors have urged the village to increase inspection fees and fines to finance more inspectors and equipment.
The Village Board during the summer had hired a consultant, former inspector, Adam McCarey, to reform the building department. McCarey is working with Markunas’s office.
While the state sat back, firefighters and good housing advocates argued for a takeover. The state settled on monitors for the Ramapo and Spring Valley building departments.
The need for stronger oversight changed after the March 23 fire at the Evergreen Court Home for Adults in which 35-year-old firefighter Jared Lloyd and a 77-year-old resident, Oliver Huested, died.
The fire started after two rabbis finished cleansing the facility’s ovens for Passover. Both rabbis, a father, and son, have pleaded not guilty to arson and manslaughter.
Two former building department officials, Wayne Ballard and Ray Canario were charged with filing false inspection reports with the state. They have pleaded not guilty as their cases are pending in County Court.
Canario, a fire chief, has been transferred back to the Public Works Department after a stint as a building inspector. Ballard, a former Clarkstown Highway Department chief, was hired to run the building department and DPW for a $172,000 salary.
The Rockland Building and Codes requests all complaints be submitted by calling 845-364-3700 or emailing [email protected]
Steve Lieberman covers government, breaking news, courts, police, and investigations. Reach him at [email protected] Twitter: @lohudlegal. Read more articles and bio. Our local coverage is only possible with support from our readers.