It was an eye-catching scene on Stamford’s West Avenue on the evening of Oct. 6.
A cop, a fire marshal, zoning officers and officials from the Connecticut city’s health department walked toward a multifamily home, carrying a measuring tape, a moisture meter, clipboards and other tools.
After repeatedly knocking on the door, the homeowner appeared and learned the group was there to investigate an illegal housing complaint.
Andrew Covino, whose two-unit residence houses his mother and a family of three, promptly welcomed the six-person task force inside the house. After a few minutes, the group walked out without finding any violations.
But that’s the outcome of only 30 to 40 percent of complaints, officials said. They usually find overcrowded homes, illegally rented units, bedrooms divided by makeshift walls to accommodate different tenants and unsafe spaces converted into sleeping areas.
“We’ve found people sleeping in closets, boiler rooms, attics, basements,” Chief Fire Marshal Charles Spaulding said.
Cramped living arrangements are not new to Stamford, but as Fire Prevention Week kicked off on Oct. 9, some officials warn the practice remains highly popular, despite the safety risks.
Besides violating the city’s zoning rules, overcrowded homes can be a firetrap if there’s an emergency. Inspectors often find apartments without smoke or carbon monoxide detectors, exposed wiring and many more extension cords than is safe.
It’s a disaster waiting to unfold, Spaulding said.
“It’s not if it’s going to happen. It’s when,” he said. “Undoubtedly, it’s going to happen sooner or later because the conditions are ripe for it.”
The inspection at Covino’s home was among about 10 conducted last week following complaints from neighbors or referrals from city agencies.
The homeowner praised the group’s effort to ensure homes across the city are safe. Covino recently rented the rear apartment of his West Avenue home to a family of three and he believes the move might have concerned a neighbor.
Zoning Enforcement Officer James Lunney said Stamford’s expensive rental rates are the main reason for the city’s increasing number of illegal firetraps.
“It’s more prevalent than ever,” he said. “The cost of living here promotes people to try to cheat so they can make some extra money.”
The increase in bedroom count has happened throughout Stamford, but Spaulding said it’s particularly prevalent in the Cove, West Side and Waterside – three of the city’s highest-density neighborhoods.
Brian Fry, who buys groceries at a Cove supermarket, was not surprised.
“I see one, two, three, four – four satellite dishes,” he said, as he pointed to what appeared to be a two-family home on Cove Road.
Fry said residents should understand that fire, zoning and health regulations are in place for their own safety.
“If you have multiple families living there and there’s a fire or an explosion, the number of people who can get hurt is two or three times higher,” he said.
Besides satellite dishes, other common red flags are the volume of cars, mailboxes and doorbells.
The fire marshal’s office receives more than 100 complaints a year. Nine out of 10 times, Spaulding said, residents are unaware they live in an illegal apartment.
The fire marshal said the task force often puts some safeguards in place during the visit, such as providing and installing smoke detectors. But depending on the violation, the group will order the landlord to correct a problem or vacate the building.
Lunney said health and fire safety issues are much easier to fix than zoning violations, which is why it may take longer for illegal apartments to be dismantled.
“With zoning, you really can’t fix it,” he said. “You can’t move your house to a zoning district that allows three families.”
Landlords are given time to comply, but if they don’t, officials take them to court. Lunney said legal action is usually avoided because of the cost to the city and the defendant, but he said he has “files and files” on many repeat offenders who the task force frequently monitors.
Officials say overcrowded homes are more common among immigrants because of financial hardships and cultural factors.
In summer 2014, an elderly woman who had recently moved from South America narrowly escaped a fire in the Cove. Her family had converted the attic into a bedroom for her without the landlord’s approval, Spaulding said.
They took an extension cord through the second-floor bedroom to give her a lamp, an air conditioner and a TV. The woman had left the house half an hour before the fire started and destroyed the attic.
Nearly 30 years ago, a family of five was not as fortunate. Jean Camman, 38, his wife Anne Marie Camman, 36, their 11-year-old daughter, Isabelle, 8-year-old son, Lyndon, and a niece, Marie Frances Forestal, 22, were killed when a fire burned their third-floor Pacific Street apartment, where a door nailed shut from the inside and blocked by a sofa delayed the firefighters’ response.
An investigation revealed the fire started in an illegally rented apartment that had no smoke detectors. The building also hadn’t been inspected in four years.
Spaulding said people are now more aware of fire hazards. He points to the decreasing number of fires as an example. The total number of fires in the city went down to 413 in the 2015-16 fiscal year from 445 in 2013-14.
But Spaulding urged neighbors to report any home that appears unsafe.
“You’re actually doing them a favor because you’re making their place better,” he said. “How would you feel if there was a fire and that person was trapped?”
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