Neighbors Worry Houses Turning Into Apartments

Neighbors of this single-family home claim new owners rented this house and others to multiple families. (Photo by Stephanie Faughnan)

  HOWELL – Local authorities believe the number of residential rental units in the community has jumped from 1,000 to 1,200 units in the last year.

  Meanwhile, numerous Howell residents suggest this number is a gross underestimate – with many landlords not coming forward to register their rentals – especially when it comes to large estates being rented out to multiple tenants.

  According to Matthew Howard, the township’s land use director, Howell does not limit the number of properties offered for rent. However, various rules pertain to each individual unit.

  Landlords are required to register their properties with the Code Enforcement/Housing Official annually and are subject to a fine if they do not comply by the end of January.

Verdana is one of the few apartment complexes in Howell with waitlists for some 2 bedroom/2bath apartments with monthly rental costs between $3,289-$4,648 (Photo by Stephanie Faughnan)

  The failure to register a rental property could result in a fine of not less than $1,000 for the first offense and $2,000 for a second offense. Fines are assessed per rental unit.

  Howell also requires an inspection of each rental property upon the initial filing of an application documenting a rental unit. Certificates issued after the first inspection need to be updated with a new check whenever a change in tenancy occurs.

  “The State of New Jersey just passed lead paint inspection requirements that caused us to increase our fees,” said Howard. “If the structure is built before 1978, the fee is $175. After 1978, the fee is $100.”

  Rental inspections are conducted by Howell’s housing official and include basic checks for habitability like access to heat and hot water. Inspectors also look for suitable ingress and egress in rental units and other factors related to safety measures.

  Howard attributed the increase in rental properties to changes within the housing market. The township only has a handful of apartment complexes. While there are some duplexes available for lease within Howell, more single-family homes have also been offered for rent this year.

  Although Howell’s local ordinance currently requires that landlords post the maximum number of occupants permitted within each rental unit, the existing language is somewhat vague. As a result, officials hope to employ a surer method of guidance in compliance with New Jersey Housing Occupancy Limits.

  The state’s administrative code spells out different requirements for dwelling units. For example, the rules mandate that “every room occupied for sleeping purposes by one occupant shall contain at least 70 square feet of floor space, and every room occupied for sleeping purposes by more than one occupant shall contain at least 50 square feet of floor space for each occupant thereof.”

  Additionally, there’s also a requirement for at least 150 square feet of floor space for the first occupant and at least 100 additional square feet of floor space for each other occupant.

  Homeowners in various areas of the township have complained of investors coming in and renting single-family houses to large groups of people. Some argue that the influx of absentee landlords results in property neglect and less than optimal living conditions in “high-end” neighborhoods.

  Ramtown resident Joe Mauer said at least five houses sold on his small street over the last year. Homes listed for $900,000 sold for over a million dollars within a few months.

  “The guy who bought the first house paid cash for it,” shared Mauer. “He then bought three more on the block and paid over $900,000 for each of them.”

  According to Mauer, the property owner doesn’t live in any of the homes and has rented out all of his properties. The number of people in the single-family dwellings leads Mauer to believe that multiple unrelated people are living in the estate-size homes.

Ads like this one are published on Facebook pages in Spanish with no indications the homes are available for sublease. (Photo by Stephanie Faughnan)

  “It’s a lot of adults in one house,” Mauer said. “It’s not like a mother and father and their kids. It’s multiple adults.”

  Traffic has intensified substantially since the neighborhood seemingly transformed from a somewhat sleepy block to a busy roadway. Some of the homes don’t have enough driveway or garage space to adequately park their vehicles.

  Mauer said he believes another residential investment property around the corner from him has also been rented to a number of families living under one roof. In that case, it appears to Mauer someone in the household is running a commercial business in a residentially zoned area.

  “They’re working on cars and storing them in the woods,” Mauer shared. “It’s an eyesore.”

  Soaring home sales and increased mortgage rates have added to the rental housing crisis. For some, that means sharing space to find suitable living quarters.

  Waiting lists for so-called affordable apartments are years long, with one market-rate studio listed at $1,800 per month with additional costs for utilities. The economics of splitting a $4,000 rental of a single-family home might appear more practical – as long as it doesn’t exceed set occupancy limits.

  A 60-year-old Howell woman who spoke on the condition of anonymity was one of a couple of people who believes she’s identified factors contributing to the onslaught of multi-family rentals in single-family homes within the community.

  “Maria” said she came to the United States from South America 26 years ago and couldn’t wait to become an American citizen. She contends that some unscrupulous landlords are renting homes to undocumented immigrants who sublease the dwellings to make ends meet.

  “I sold a washing machine to a lady who explained her situation to me,” said Maria. “The woman told me she was cleaning someone’s house and learned of a home for rent. Separate groups of mothers, fathers, and their children moved into the house, with each family sharing their own bedroom.”

  Multiple tenants take turns using the kitchen and bathroom facilities.

  After speaking with the woman when she delivered the washing machine, Maria learned that many of the lease properties are advertised on Facebook pages written in Spanish and purporting to be marketplace offerings in specified areas.

  The Facebook listings show multiple rental properties in Howell and surrounding towns. Many are sprawling estate homes with no hint they are available for sublease. Maria suggested that part of the transaction is kept quiet.

  Another Howell resident who asked not to be identified said she noticed a recently sold home on her cul de sac was on one of the same Facebook pages. She expressed concerns that a lockbox was placed on the door after the sale and that seemingly prospective tenants used a keypad to look at the property late in the evening.

  “What struck us was that when I contacted my realtor, I was advised the home wasn’t listed for rent in any of the regular listings,” the woman shared. “No one was acting as the owner or on their behalf to show the house.”

  Those advertising Howell rental properties on the Spanish marketplace pages did not respond to calls or text messages left by this reporter.

  Annmarie Scottson, a local realtor who lives in Howell, has offered her commentary on the subject. She acknowledged that affordable rentals are badly needed because people are being priced out of buying homes.

  “Howell has very strict rules on rentals, what you can and can’t do with your homes, etc.,” Scottson said. “If you see something or are having issues with renters, you call the town, code enforcement. You can’t rent a home with 20 people. You can’t have boarding houses or dormitories. You see it; you call code enforcement.”