• Joseph F. Berenato

Town deals with overcrowding

Mayor: Some ‘renting out bedrooms’


As the prices of real estate and rental units continue to rise, Hammonton is facing a problem with rental overcrowding. (Courtesy Photo)

HAMMONTON—As the prices of real estate and rental units continue to rise, Hammonton is facing a problem with rental overcrowding.


Mayor Stephen DiDonato said that the town is “having an issue with some landlords renting out bedrooms.”


“You can rent a house to one family, or a duplex to two, but there’s only one boarding house in the town of Hammonton that can rent bedrooms, and that would be the house on Orchard Street near Second. I have a serious concern of people renting out bedrooms, allowing people to sleep in bedrooms where it’s unsafe without egress and safety conditions—God forbid if there’s a fire—in the name of the almighty dollar. That’s not right. It’s not fair to the renters; you can’t take advantage of anybody. You can make money owning, and renting and paying your mortgage and doing different things, but you can’t beat the system or hurt people or put them in unsafe conditions,” DiDonato said.


DiDonato said that, with the increase in the price of rentals, some landlords “have chosen to do the wrong thing.”


“That’s what we’re going to be cracking down on very severely in the short term. We’re going to be using the police department and the building department to go into units and identify those situations and remediate them,” DiDonato said.


Mark Rogers, the town’s code enforcement officer, said that several things are being done.


“We’re investigating overcrowding right now. We’re asking landlords to submit us copies of the leases, and, if they’re operating a property that does not have a lease, we’re asking them for a list of tenants. When we go in to inspect the properties, we check the bedrooms ... We’ve done after-hours inspections for overcrowding before, and we still do that on occasion if we really suspect that there’s overcrowding,” Rogers said.


Rogers said that there are specific state regulations as to how many people can be in one bedroom.


“For one occupant bedroom has to be at least 70 square feet, which isn’t really much. It also has to have a window; every bedroom has to have a window as a means of egress. For two or more occupants, you have to have an additional 50 square feet per occupant. Under no circumstances can you have more than four occupants in a bedroom, regardless of the size,” Rogers said.


Rogers said that a variety of things are noted during inspections.


“We look to see things like, are there a lot of shoes around? Different sizes, different genders, things like that ... It can be very difficult, unless you see the bedrooms. If the bedrooms are overcrowded, if they’re living in the basement or living in the living room or something like that, that’s a violation and that has to stop,” Rogers said.


DiDonato concurred.


“I’m worried about where there’s 10 and 12 and 14 people in a two- and three-bedroom unit ... It’s one thing to make money; it’s another thing to make money that’s not rightfully yours because you’re taking advantage of somebody,” DiDonato said.


Hammonton Police Chief Kevin Friel echoed DiDonato’s sentiments.


“Because properties are at the premium that they are right now, a lot of landlords have increased the rent. There are some allegations of renting rooms for upwards of $800 or $900 a month, for one room; you’re paying almost a small mortgage there. If the property isn’t being rented properly, it puts the renter at a disadvantage,” Friel said.


Friel said that renting rooms “is not something that is permitted by ordinance, unless it would be a boarding house.”


“A residential dwelling can’t be sublet into renting rooms, so we want to make sure that those individuals who can’t afford a house of their own aren’t being taken advantage of by people renting out rooms at a high rate, and therefore putting the renters at a disadvantage,” Friel said.


DiDonato said that overcrowding presents a difficult situation, particularly for the tenants who would then need to vacate the dwelling.


“The tenant, we’ll have to try to help them find other living conditions, but we can’t put them in a condition where—we have bedrooms where there are six or eight people sleeping on mattresses in a bedroom in the town of Hammonton. ... It’s dangerous, and somebody could get hurt, God forbid, or worse,” DiDonato said.


One inspection roadblock, Rogers said, is an apparent lack of communication between landlord and tenant.


“Landlords don’t seem to be notifying their tenants about scheduled inspections or ensuring that we can get in at the day and time specified. [Fire Sub Code Official] A.J. Berenato and I are going back two or three times to these places, and that just isn’t sustainable. I’ll send them a letter for a missed inspection, then I’ll reschedule it. If it happens a second time and we have to do a third inspection, I try to contact them personally ... Since we got over COVID, that has become a fairly serious problem,” Rogers said.


Friel said that the task force meets once a month to discuss such matters.


“We review any new issues that we have, and we also follow up on any issues that we have already tasked out to make sure that we are making headway, so that we’re not just floating in the middle of the lake; we’re heading in the direction of making corrections ... Part of the task force’s job is to make sure the houses and buildings are being maintained up to code so that the tenants and the community receive the highest quality housing that would be expected here. We want the revenues generated by rent to go back into the buildings to be maintained properly, and not to slip into a state of disrepair or to reduce the quality of our community,” Friel said.


In regards to repair and upkeep, Rogers said that he doesn’t “really have any complaints about the landlords in Hammonton.”


“With few exceptions, they’re very good at that. They’re very compliant. The biggest violation is usually in the area of improper smoke detectors, exterior problems—we do have a lot of tenants who like to accumulate junk and trash outside, and that’s a violation. The landlords have been very good at cleaning that up. When they’re cited, the landlords are very good about clearing up violations,” Rogers said.


Rogers said that all landlords in the town of Hammonton must comply with the International Property Maintenance Code, as well as with Chapter 216 of the General Ordinances of the Town of Hammonton – Rental Property, the complete language of which may be found at https://codelibrary.amlegal.com/codes/hammonton/latest/hammonton_nj/0-0-0-3866.


Chapter 216 also outlines violations and penalties, which Rogers explained.


“If they get cited, they have a certain number of days to correct the situation. If it’s safety—like fire or something like that—they have 10 days; if there’s a problem with smoke alarms, carbon monoxide alarms, fire extinguishers, combustibles in the basement or anything like that, they have 10 days. Everything else, by law, is 30 days; for example, if we do find overcrowding, I cite the landlord a violation for overcrowding and they have 30 days to get the person out of the basement or wherever it is, and then we go back and inspect. If they don’t do it, then they receive a summons to municipal court; the fine, if found guilty, can be up to $750 for a first offense,” Rogers said.


Additionally, Chapter 216 includes language that can hold landlords responsible for criminal activity perpetrated by tenants.


“If a property or location becomes a nuisance—if there are repeated calls at a location—the landlord can also be held accountable for the repeated calls to that location; ‘maintaining a nuisance’ is probably the blanket way to say it. If we keep getting calls at a location which is causing public annoyance and alarm, the landlord can be charged as well as the person who has committed the offense,” Friel said.


Removal of such tenants, however, is still problematic, as eviction restrictions are still in place in New Jersey.


“Apparently they’re staying in place for people who are less than 80 percent of the median income in New Jersey. The restrictions are still in place until August 31; there’s a bill before the legislature to make it the end of the year,” Rogers said.


While the actual evictions are restricted, Friel said, the process itself is still active, and utilization of that process may help a landlord in court.


“I’m sure that, if the landlord has made attempts to file for the eviction—because people can still file; it’s just that there’s a moratorium on the eviction process actually happening—as long as the landlord is taking all reasonably prudent steps to stop the problem, I’m sure that would certainly be a mitigating factor if the landlord was charged with the ordinance when it came before our court,” Friel said.


For tenants wishing to file a complaint, Rogers said that they can call the housing office at (609) 567-4300, ext. 109.


“We will check it out. We field complaints from tenants frequently,” Rogers said.


DiDonato said that individuals may also dial ext. 300.


“It’s anonymous. I’m the only one who monitors that. I take notes. If somebody wants to call in, I don’t ask any questions. I don’t ask any names. They just tell me where the situation is, and we’ll monitor. We’ll make sure that it is factual; we’re not just going to assume it is because somebody calls in. We’ve had that, too, where somebody just has an ax to grind, in all honesty. We’re not there for that. We’re there to eliminate the problem situations, not get involved in disputes,” DiDonato said.


Friel encouraged the use of either number.


“If any residents have concern about code or building violations, we welcome any calls in reference to that. We want to keep the quality of our community at a great standard. When we have a community that is following all of the building codes and ordinances, it makes a clean community and it makes people want to come and visit—and it makes the people here feel happy that their community is the way that it is,” Friel said.