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September 15, 2004

Coordinated Effort Needed to Combat Illegal Apartments

Media Contact: Randolph Yunker - (516) 571-2490

(Mineola, NY) After weeks of intense investigation into the increasing numbers of illegal boarding and rooming houses that are operating out of single-family homes, Nassau County Assessor Harvey Levinson found that the procedures utilized in the landlord/tenant part of the Nassau County District Court may unintentionally facilitate the proliferation of unlawful apartments throughout the County.

Assessor Levinson explained that when a landlord files a petition in court to obtain an order to collect back rent and evict the tenant, the petition itself does not require the landlord to attest to the fact that the apartment he or she is renting conforms to local building codes and zoning laws. If the affirmation of the apartment's legal status was required, landlords would be forced to either admit to the apartment's legal status or face the possibility of fines or penalties for filing a false document. The fear of criminal prosecution not only would reduce the number of actions brought to court, but would deter many landlords from engaging in renting illegal apartments.

"It should be reasonable to assume that judges should be presented with all the facts of a rent dispute case including whether or not the landlord is engaging in an illegal activity," stated Assessor Levinson. "Even if a judge finds the rental to be illegal, some judges will, nevertheless, order the payment of back rent thereby insuring the landlords profits will continue."

Assessor Levinson confirmed that only the Town of North Hempstead and New York City have enacted laws aimed at preventing landlords from being able to pursue rent disputes arising from illegal apartments in court unless a "Rental Occupancy Permit" can be produced. In addition, the Town also places the responsibility for verifying the existence or validity of the permit with the real estate broker or agent who takes the listing and subjects them to specific penalties for non-compliance. The local statutes, in effect, act as a deterrent to unscrupulous landlords who might otherwise try to turn to the courts for relief, as well as real estate brokers or agents who take illegal listings.

"Unfortunately, unless all local municipalities adopt - on a countywide basis - a unified version of the North Hempstead statutory initiatives, the widely divergent treatment of illegal rental agreements in landlord tenant court will continue," stated Assessor Levinson. "This legislation will give the courts a clear legal basis to deny the payment of back rent based on the case submitted."

Assessor Levinson also found that a number of landlords may not have informed their insurance carriers of the properties' actual use and, in doing so, risk additional financial costs and loss of coverage for lawsuits that might emerge as a result of accident claims, loss of property or fire. Once a property is confirmed to be in violation of local building and zoning laws and is reclassified accordingly, a list will be provided to the property's insurance carrier upon written request.

"For those landlords who are willing to take their chances and violate local building codes, I stand ready to assess their properties at the higher commercial rate," concluded Assessor Levinson. "While I have called on all levels of government to participate in a meaningful dialogue on finding ways to combat the growth of illegal and unsafe apartments throughout Nassau County, I am particularly appreciative of Long Beach City Manager Glen Spiritis and the City Council for their full cooperation and dedicated effort in this fight."