Another L.I. Death Linked to "Illegal" Apartment

By Greg Cergol
|  Tuesday, Mar 29, 2011  |  Updated 11:26 AM EDT
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Number of deaths attributed to fires in illegal converted apartments on the rise.

Number of deaths attributed to fires in illegal converted apartments on the rise.

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A Suffolk County woman's death in a fire over the weekend marked the second time this month that a fire in an illegally converted garage apartment claimed lives.

Dori Costa, 46, was killed in a Sunday's fire inside a converted Islip garage, according to Suffolk county police. The cause was believed to be accidental, and the apartment where the single mother lived and died was illegal, according to Islip town officials.

"I know she was in between jobs and trying to provide for her kids," said neighbor Mike Curry.  "It's a tragedy."

Gary Munsch, 54 and his wife, Toni, 51, were killed in a March 17 fire at their garage apartment in Massapequa

According to housing experts, both tragedies can be linked to Long Island's lack of affordable rental apartments.

"There's thousands of illegal apartments on Long Island," said Peter Elkowitz. the CEO of the non-profit Long Island Housing Help.

Long Island has long had a shortage of affordable rentals, Elkowitz said. And more are seeking cheap places to live, as foreclosure rates rise in the area.

In addition, said Elkowitz, Long Island's rising property taxes continue to force homeowners to rent out garages or basements as a way to reduce their costs.

"When it hits home, that's when people realize the need for more rentals," said Elkowitz.

"Illegal housing complaints are up.  Not significantly; but they are up," said Larry O'Leary, Islip town's Public Safety commissioner. "Times are tough."

Islip and several neighboring towns offer homeowners the opportunity to legalize their apartments; but, often, homeowners choose not to move forward with what can be a lengthy bureaucratic process. 

As a result, town officials said, the fight against illegal housing is an uphill one.

In Huntington, a special code enforcement task force investigating illegal housing has received more than 500 complaints in a little more than a year.

Potential renters should call their town hall to check on the legality of an apartment they are considering, said O'Leary. 

It's a call that could save your life.

Those renting illegal apartments often overlook safety concerns, said O'Leary.  In the case of the Massapequa fire, for example, investigators found no evidence of working smoke detectors in the garage apartment.

"There's a right way to do things and a wrong way," said O'Leary.  "Unfortunately, this is the wrong way."

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