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Borough Addresses Overcrowding Issue At Council Meeting

Candace Braun

Borough Council unanimously voted to introduce an ordinance to alleviate overcrowding in rental units at its meeting on Tuesday, October 14. The ordinance will allow officials to issue a summons for an immediate court hearing to landlords who are in direct violation of the Borough's housing code.

In the past, violators had 30 days to resolve overcrowding problems in their housing unit before they were taken to court. Often, this resulted in a quick, yet ineffective solution because many landlords later resumed their previous renting practices.

Overcrowding in rental units is a result of insufficient supply of low-income housing, according to Borough Administrator Robert Bruschi. Princeton is attractive to many immigrants due to its abundance of restaurants in need of bus boys, dishwashers, and other kitchen help. Many of the job holders sleep in rooms with approximately 15 to 20 other individuals on living room or basement floors.

Besides the unsanitary conditions that these workers live in, there are also problems for residents who live downtown. Extra garbage on streets, high noise levels, and sidewalks and parking areas littered with bicycles have become problems for many who live in the Borough.

"It has nothing to do with class, culture, or ethnicity, but what is or is not good for the neighborhood," Councilwoman Mildred Trotman said in a separate interview. She said overcrowding has been an issue for at least 20 years, and has gotten progressively worse over the last 10 years. "I don't care how much we've done, it isn't enough," she said.

At present, convicted landlords are fined a maximum of $1,000. "That's nothing," said Borough Fire and Housing Inspector William Drake. He said that compared to the amount of money the landlords are making from renting housing units, the fine alone is not enough to discourage them.

Currently, there are about 400 rental properties in the Borough, representing about 1,200 housing units, said Mr. Drake. Out of those 1,200 units, about 30 units appear to be problematic.

"One of the issues we need to overcome is the cultural differences," said Mr. Bruschi. Many of those living in overcrowded homes do not speak or read English, which makes it more difficult for them to understand that they are breaking the law, he said.

Some Council members suggested sensitivity training for these individuals would be helpful, along with sending out brochures in Spanish that explain Princeton's housing code. Another suggestion was to speak to the Spanish-speaking community as a group about housing laws.

Councilman David Goldfarb suggested encouraging neighbors that live next door to these overcrowded residences to testify in court. However, Mayor Marvin Reed disagreed, saying that most residents would be unwilling to testify.

The mayor did say, however, that when phone calls are made, they are the most fast-acting way to get the police to respond. He said he once received a call from a restaurant complaining about the number of bikes chained up on the street, in the way of parking meters. The call enabled the Borough to investigate the bike owners and the surrounding area.

"You've got to encourage people to make those kinds of complaints, and then we can follow up on them," said Mayor Reed.

Ms. Trotman said she has made numerous complaints to officials about the trash on Witherspoon Street on Sundays when she is walking to church. However, she said her complaints have not made a difference in the long term.

In addition, the mayor cited Hodge Road, Cleveland Lane and Witherspoon Street as areas where they have found people operating illegal catering businesses out of their homes. "These need to be subject to some system of inspection," he said.

Identifying Violators

Housing violations are difficult to detect, unless visible extra mattresses and refrigerators are dispersed throughout the home, said Mr. Drake. Housing inspections every two years allow for the fire official to check all residences for any evidence of overcrowding, however it is more difficult to catch these landlords at other points in time. Neighbors may call with their suspicions. But, unless they actually see an abundance of people going into the homes and staying there overnight, it is difficult to investigate, said Mr. Drake.

He added that if a police officer enters a home for another legal reason and notices overcrowding, legal action may be taken right away. A few cases have been taken to court, but most were plea-bargained.

Mr. Goldfarb was insistent on finding a quick and speedy solution to overcrowding. "We have people living here in conditions we are not willing to sanction," he said. "We have to restore the system that people have every right to expect we will restore."

Councilman Joe O'Neill said that the problem lies within Princeton as much as it lies in the landlords. "The Borough of Princeton has more potential for minimum wage jobs than any other towns in the area," he said.

Mr. Drake noted that some units have come off the market this past year, including 52 Witherspoon Street, which was one of the more well known cases

in town.

Finding a Solution

Several solutions were suggested by Council members, including forcing all Borough residents to register their bicycles. Councilwoman Peggy Karcher said that perhaps if all bikes were registered, then the Borough could pinpoint where people were living. Mr. Drake refuted the idea, saying that many fear the police and would rather lose their bike than register it.

Councilwoman Wendy Benchley suggested finding these individuals low-cost housing along transit routes in other areas of New Jersey. "It's a lot of people to displace in one fell swoop," she said.

Eric and Minnie Craig, long-time residents on Witherspoon Street, came to the meeting to help fight for the neighbors who have dealt with overcrowding for years. "We see it, we live right in the middle of it," said Mrs. Craig. "We have to go after the landlords."

Mayor Reed suggested cracking down on the known residences with overcrowding problems. "We may not be successful ... but that's how you find the gaps," he said. He said that even if the prosecutions are unsuccessful, the Council will gradually learn the best way to handle the situation in court.

According to Mr. Drake, the Borough is already ahead of other municipalities in enforcing housing laws. He said that other municipalities have asked to view Princeton Borough's ordinances to get a better idea of how to combat the problem. "Princeton Borough is at the head of the curve," he said. "It is not an issue we are alone on by far."

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