Sleepy Hollow Takes Action

As the topic of immigration heats up in our nation’s capital, the subject reverberates closer to home. The differences in language, communication and culture only serve to erect more barriers, especially when it comes to illegal housing in the Village of Sleepy Hollow.

Village Architect and Building Inspector Sean McCarthy has sought to diminish those barriers with an education campaign that includes a brochure he drew up when Mayor Philip Zegarelli hired him two years ago.Yet, it’s still a problem that occupies much of his time.

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Top: Garage occupied by two men on Chestnut St. Photo by SH Building Dept.
Middle: Unsanitary, unsafe basement kitchen on Cortlandt St.
Bottom: Wall-to-wall sleeping in a basement apartment.

In fact, when the River Journal caught up with McCarthy on a recent weekday morning, he was just back from inspecting an illegal basement.

"In most cases, homeowners already know they’re in violation," McCarthy said. But while it’s the homeowners who are violating the code, it’s the tenants who find themselves forced to seek alternate housing. Some of the code violations are easy to remedy because they involve a full-fledged apartment where the owner simply never obtained the proper permits. Or, it could involve a situation where a family has a nanny who lives in the basement, even though the bottom floor is not supposed to function as a bedroom.

However, McCarthy said others involve a basement or attic divided into cubicles where a number of people, often day laborers, share one bathroom along with a toaster, microwave and small refrigerator. It could also appear to be a normal two or three bedroom apartment, but with more occupants than what’s permitted by the zoning code. "Such circumstances may present a fire and safety hazard to the tenants as well as to emergency responders," McCarthy said. In a recent situation, he encountered a one-bedroom apartment on Clinton Street occupied by a seven-person family, including several kids. He also discovered an 8-foot by 10-foot garden shed harboring two men on Depeyster Street. Another house on Kendall Avenue had three people sharing one bathroom in an attic. "You could not stand up," McCarthy said.

This year alone, he has dealt with 13 illegal apartments. McCarthy discovers these illegal apartments after hearing complaints from neighbors or other occupants in the home. Also, when the Village police and fire departments discover an illegal apartment, they’ll alert him. When he arrives on the scene, he first determines the degree of hazard. Often, he’ll send a certified letter instructing the owner to change the situation and give the owner anywhere between one to three weeks to dismantle the illegal structures. However, if the situation presents an immediate hazard, McCarthy will condemn it on the spot. In that case, the owner must obtain permits from the Building Department to demolish the structure. If owners don’t comply and they are prosecuted, they could face up to a $1,000 fine per day and per violation.

But what happens to the occupants? Police Chief Jimmy Warren Jr. said that sometimes his Department will contact the Red Cross. But in most cases, he said, they have somewhere to go and will contact other family members. He added that his department doesn’t inquire about their legal immigration status. They would contact the appropriate law enforcement agency if a non-citizen committed a crime, but he stressed that being an occupant in an illegal apartment is not committing a crime.

Paul Carden, Interim Director of Emergency Services for the Westchester County Red Cross, said his agency would open an emergency homeless shelter if a large number of occupants were left stranded. "We’ll help a local government to meet their basic needs," Carden said. But he said such a service is determined on a case-by-case situation until the government figures out an alternate plan.

These scenarios aren’t unfamiliar to a 22 year-old we spoke with. She is a U.S. citizen who was born and raised in Ecuador and moved to the U.S. 12 years ago, settling in Tarrytown. We have honored her request not to mention her name. Suffice it to say she has many immigrant relatives and close friends throughout the area, including Sleepy Hollow. She explained that back in their native countries, the people who come to Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown legally or illegally didn’t have the same type of building regulations and are ignorant of building codes when they arrive in this country. "They don’t know that they need a permit to change a roof," she said. She added that very often they seek advice from their neighbors who also speak Spanish, and receive incorrect information. As for the day laborers, a lot of them are out of a job during the winter months. "They have no more choices," she said. So they sleep in their cars and they move from a legal dwelling to an illegal apartment, and after that, to another illegal apartment.

In future issues, River Journal will take a look at how immigrants face other areas of their life in our villages. For example, how do communication barriers and cultural differences affect other services, including the Tarrytowns school system?

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About the Author: Brett Freeman