Stamford, Conn., Turns to Database to Thwart Illegal Housing

Efforts to organize data from a number of physical and digital sources will help the city crack down on zoning and safety violations

by Liz Skalka, The Advocate / February 1, 2018
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(TNS) — STAMFORD, Conn. — Imagine buying an income-generating three-family home and later learning only two of the units are legal.

Or finding out your house isn’t zoned for an existing in-law apartment.

It’s not uncommon.

But a database in the works would make it easier for the public and city officials to identify illegal dwellings.

Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing has asked city legislators for a $150,000 capital appropriation to create a digital database of 240,000 tax cards dating back 70 years.

The cards exist in several forms — on paper or as microform images, or in an obsolete computer database — depending on their age, Blessing told city legislators. This adds to the challenge of investigating complaints about illegal housing, he said.

“We get a zoning complaint about illegal use of a building and then we have to go to the tax assessor’s office to pull the records in whatever form they are in. Then we have to reconstruct the history of that dwelling based on the tax records from the 1950s moving forward,” Blessing told Board of Representatives members this month. “It’s a very time-intensive process.”

A single request can take up to a week, according to Laura Burwick, a special assistant in the mayor’s office who works closely with the building and zoning departments.

She added that many micofiche records are becoming worn.

“They’re starting to fall apart,” she said, “so we came up with the proposal to get a company to digitize them.”

Many believe illegal housing — homes that don’t conform to zoning regulations or building codes, often making them dangerous to live in — is a problem across Stamford. To help address the issue, the city has a housing task force comprised of zoning, building, health and fire department officials who inspect homes suspected to be in violation.

“The idea is to get all the information, scan it, index it and make it available not only to my staff, but also to staff from other departments who have to do with illegal housing or housing issues in general,” Blessing said.

The records are most important for determining whether an older property has been granted a pre-existing use — for example, a two-family dwelling in what is now a single-family zone.

“The essence of this is both for safety violations, but also in zoning enforcement there are a lot grandfather situations,” Mayor David Martin said. “Before we can enforce something, we have to check the records.”

“In a neighborhood where all the buildings were built after the 1980s, it’s less of a problem,” Blessing told the Board of Finance during its review of the request. “A neighborhood built before 1951 is where you’re going to have a lot of legal nonconforming buildings.”

Accurate historical information is also critical for buying and selling homes, getting a mortgage and assessing taxes. Buyers may go into a sale not having all the data in front of them.

“What we’ve heard from people is they buy a house thinking it’s a three-family house and it’s really a two-family house. Now there’s less rental income and they’ve gotten a mortgage based on that wrong information,” Blessing said.

The idea is for the information to be available to the public online, in a database similar to an existing one managed by Vision Government Solutions that provides assessment data.

“We’ve talked about zoning enforcement issues for some time now,” Blessing said. “I think the municipal search is an important aspect of that.”

The Board of Representatives will vote Monday on Blessing’s proposal.

©2018 The Advocate (Stamford, Conn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.