Hempstead Village Mayor Waylyn Hobbs Jr. joins police and fire...

Hempstead Village Mayor Waylyn Hobbs Jr. joins police and fire Officials to announce a crackdown on illegal rental properties in the village on Wednesday in Hempstead. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Hempstead village officials are cracking down on illegal rentals that present dangers for both residents and first responders, spurred in part by a fatal fire earlier this month in an illegal basement apartment.

Hempstead Mayor Waylyn Hobbs said Wednesday that the village was hiring two code compliance investigators and a prosecutor to handle illegal rental cases in the village after a Nov. 13 fire killed an 81-year-old man and displaced 16 people at a converted Devon Road home.

Hobbs said village officials did not know how many illegal rentals were in the village, the largest village on Long Island of nearly 60,000 residents. Hempstead Town officials said they have received more than 400 complaints so far this year reporting illegal rentals, though not every complaint results in a violation.

Hobbs said code enforcement officers would look for signs of illegal dwellings such as too many trash cans outside homes and the prosecutor would handle exclusively illegal dwelling cases in the village court.

    WHAT TO KNOW

  • Hempstead Village is hiring two code investigators and a prosecutor to address illegal rentals.
  • The move came after an 81-year-old man was killed after a basement fire, possibly caused by a space heater, ignited at an illegal residence Nov. 13, displacing 16 people.
  • Illegal rentals plague towns throughout Long Island and can present dangers to residents and first responders.

The fire at the Devon Road home included two illegal basement apartments and may have been sparked by a space heater. The building is one of the latest examples of illegal rentals in Hempstead and other towns that officials say pose a threat to both residents and first responders entering unlicensed and often overcrowded buildings.

“It’s a pretty serious problem,” said Nassau County Fire Marshal Michael Uttaro. “

“When multiple people are in illegal or basement apartments, it becomes hazardous when these homes are overcrowded and many times the tenants in the house don’t know each other. It can be hard to get a straight answer if everyone is out and if anyone is left behind.”

The village offers legal rental registration permits but the building department must first conduct code inspections.

Landlords of unregistered, illegal rentals can face fines starting at $3,000 for the first offense and escalating up to $12,000 or 15 days in jail. Hobbs encouraged any neighbors or tenants who suspected illegal rentals to report it to the village.

“This is not only a safety issue for residents, but it becomes a safety issue for first responders,” Hobbs said. “When our fire department thinks it’s going into a two-bedroom apartment and someone has converted it into a four-bedroom apartment, that poses a safety concern for the men and women of our fire department.”

In August, 2022, another fire tore through an illegal vacation home in Noyack in Southampton that killed two sisters from Maryland, Jillian, 21, and Lindsay Wiener, 19, after firefighters believe the blaze started at an outdoor kitchen.

The home did not have working smoke detectors and the owners of the home were issued 58 violations for illegal alterations and renovations. The owners lacked proper permits for a vacation rental and the home had not been inspected for code compliance.

“Illegal rentals are a problem for all municipalities and Southampton is not free of that problem,” said Ryan Murphy, Southampton Town’s code compliance and emergency management administrator. “When someone else’s’ life is being entrusted to that property, they should have a reasonable assumption there’s been some level of safety evaluation by the town or by a private home inspector.”

In the Town of Islip, about 30% of the town’s complaints are related to occupied or maintenance of accessory apartments, officials said.

A specialized team of investigators follow up on complaints. Unsafe dwellings can be declared “unfit for occupancy” and occupants are referred to Suffolk County for emergency housing.

Hempstead Town Supervisor Don Clavin said the town has tried to address illegal rentals in part by banning short-term rentals of less than 28 days like Airbnb in 2017 and also rentals of backyard swimming pools following an uptick of pool parties in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Illegal rentals are a drain on local government. People aren’t paying their fair share of taxes and the costs associated with those services and schools,” Clavin said. “It’s the responsibility for towns and the villages to enforce rules on the books.”

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