Norwich housing problem unresolved

Buy Photo Sean D. Elliot The Day Traffic passes by houses at 718 and 724 W. Thames St. in Norwich on Friday. Go to theday.com to read the condemnation notices the city issued to the property owners.

Norwich - Inspectors have in the past three years visited one or the other of two West Thames Street houses for an overflowing septic system, a smoking furnace surrounded by illegal basement bedrooms and a blocked main entrance.

Each time, they found illegal wiring and wall dividers and far more occupants than the houses can legally hold. Three times since December 2008, building and health inspectors have condemned the ranch houses at 718 and 724 W. Thames St. for dangerous overcrowding conditions.

"We're worried that the fourth time is coming," City Code Enforcement Officer George Gardner said last week.

Renters in the houses typically have been Asian workers from the nearby Mohegan Sun casino.

City health, building and housing inspectors want criminal charges filed against the property owners, Robert Eldridge and Lin Feng Eldridge, of 18 Old Fitchville Road, Montville.

But months after they referred their complaints to the housing prosecutor at the state's attorney's office, the inspectors are still waiting and the houses have received their new certificates of occupancy. A "For Rent" sign hangs on the door at 718 W. Thames St. and a "For Sale" sign sits on the lawn at 724.

Dating back to 2008

Inspectors first visited the houses when neighbors complained of pollution from a failed septic system at 718 W. Thames St. in late 2008. An Uncas Health Department official inspecting the repairs saw smoke emanating from the basement. When building inspectors responded, they discovered illegal bedrooms in the basement and the main floors of both houses.

Gardner ordered the illegal temporary walls and electrical wiring removed and the houses restored to single-family conditions.

Responding to a neighbor's complaint, Gardner returned in August 2010 and found four bedrooms in the basement and five on the main floors of each house. Temporary wall partitions and illegal wiring that had been removed were back. Another illegal bedroom was found above the garage.

Gardner condemned the houses for the second time and the owners again removed the bedrooms.

On Oct. 24, 2012, inspectors were alerted anew to violations after firefighters were called to 718 W. Thames St. for a medical emergency and found a large statue on the outdoor front steps blocking the entrance. Gardner said the front entranceway had been converted into an illegal bedroom.

Fire Lt. James E. Fear Sr. wrote a letter to city inspectors describing three basement bedrooms, one in the garage and six on the main floor at 718, built as a two-bedroom house. Next door at 724, also a two-bedroom house, inspectors found two basement bedrooms and four on the main floor. In both houses, all bedrooms had locks and were rented separately to tenants, Gardner said.

In December 2012, Robert Eldridge once again applied for city building permits to remove the wall partitions and electrical work and restore the houses to single-family status. He applied for and received a permit to create a legal third bedroom at 718.

Criminal charges sought

Zoning, code enforcement and health inspectors met with prosecutor Rafael Bustamante at the site on Dec. 12, but since then city officials said they have received little response to their request for help in seeking criminal charges.

City Planning Director Peter Davis will meet with Judith Dicine, supervisory assistant state's attorney for housing matters, on Friday.

"The individual has willfully and repeatedly placed unknowing and vulnerable people in extremely dangerous living conditions without any regard for their safety or well-being," Davis wrote in his initial email to Dicine on Nov. 28.

Robert Eldridge did not respond to a request for comment.

Uncas Health District Director Patrick McCormack said a Waterbury case he heard about last year involving a fatal fire in an illegal bedroom was the catalyst for seeking strict enforcement in the Norwich cases.

"We saw this as a similar case, and using that as a precedent, this might be an opportunity to engage the state and develop our own precedent on how to deal with these cases in the future," McCormack said. "Our goal is to prevent people from getting sick, disabled or dying."

"We met with the prosecutor at the site so they can physically see the building," McCormack said of the December meeting with Bustamante. "We're concerned about the people who live there because there are language barriers and they might not seek help."

c.bessette@theday.com

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