I-Team: Rockland Firefighters Sound the Alarm on the Dangers of Illegal Conversions

Firefighters in Rockland County are sounding the alarm about a life-threatening danger: illegally converted homes and out-of-control construction. The hot zones are in the village of Spring Valley and the neighboring town of Ramapo.

The Spring Valley Fire Department, made up of volunteers, is the busiest in Rockland County. They drill on a regular basis, but say there is no amount of training that can prepare them for escalating, unforeseen dangers.

Ramshackle single-family homes are being scooped up by absentee landlords who turn them into potential fire traps for undocumented workers. The rooms rent for as much as $500 each.

Firefighter Aaron Lerer showed the I-Team one basement where a fire recently erupted. “When we got in there it was just a crawl space. And we found smoke, fire, and just the whole basement was set up into illegal rooms,” he said.

Firefighter Guilson Aguirre once lived in an illegal home with his parents and several others. “You’re looking for somewhere to live, “he said. “You’re not trying to sleep in the street so you do as much as you can with as little as you can.”

Fire Captain Justin Schwartz said the situation is dire. “They’re putting our lives at risk. They’re putting residents’ lives at risk. It’s a matter not if, but when the body bags start coming out.”

First responders are saddled with outdated and expired equipment. Their chief pumper has failed more than once and the radios work only half of the time. The Department has been battling for years to get increased funding through the Village.

Spring Valley and Ramapo are in the middle of a construction boom. Firefighters and inspectors told the I-Team that issue is compounding the danger.

“The law here is the wild, wild west, “ said Schwartz. He complained that giant homes are getting approval to be built on top of property lines, with no room for emergency equipment to get by. “It’s weapons of mass construction -- that’s what it is, “ he said. “It’s wrong, it’s immoral.”

Vacate orders are often ignored for construction of illegal student dormitories. Single-family homes suddenly become religious schools. Spring Valley Mayor Demeza Delhomme blamed other village officials and said he has no control over zoning and permits.

“The danger is so huge, it’s scary,” he said. He added his hands are tied and described the situation as a madness that should be stopped.

Delhomme said he wants federal officials to come in and fix the problem.

Rockland County Executive Ed Day has formed a housing task force to combat slumlords, utilizing health department codes. New York State Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski is calling for a state investigation and an immediate moratorium on temporary certificates of occupancy.

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