The impact of uncontrolled immigration is coming home for residents of many Long Island, New York, communities as landlords turn single-family homes into filthy, overcrowded tenements holding as many as 64 renters—causing health and fire dangers and transforming neighborhoods.
Illegal rooming houses, serving both documented and undocumented immigrants, are increasingly appearing across Long Island, as landlords fill a niche created by the demand for and availability of cheap foreign labor.
“It’s definitely spreading,” Brookhaven Councilman James Tullo, who heads a task force investigating 300 illegal rentals in his town, told Newsday. “It’s popping up in areas where you wouldn’t expect them to be.”
The worst conditions are found at “shift-bed” houses—places where mattresses are rented for limited periods of time. Most such houses offer two shifts per day, notes Nassau County Assessor Harvey Levinson.
“Sleeping in closets, sleeping in basements, sleeping in shifts,” says former Nassau County Assistant Fire Marshal Steve Wenk. “We’ve seen it all.”
Renters say they typically pay from $250 to $350 a month per person. When five or six share a bedroom, rates are usually less.
Seasonal workers from South Africa pay their employer, Glen Oaks Country Club, $75 a week to live two or three to a room in a home the club rents from a Queens businessman. Included in the rent is transportation to work in the club’s van that honks its horn during its early morning pickup—to the chagrin of neighbors.
“We’re paying our full load for taxes to live here and the person behind me is running a rooming house,” complains neighbor Carol Voelger.
Between 1990 and 2000, the number of “overcrowded” housing units in Nassau and Suffolk counties grew by 41 percent. Officially, the “overcrowded” label is used to describe housing with more than one person per room. With the influx of immigrants into Long Island, officials say finding 15 people living in a single-family home is not rare. Most cases of overcrowded housing and squalid conditions never come to their attention, authorities admit.
Vanessa Tallerico, whose neighborhood has six illegal rooming houses, remembers when her community had “a mixture of people.”
“When you have 300 to 400 men move in, that’s no longer diverse,” she says.