Pair of Norwich houses condemned for overcrowded conditions

Norwich - For the third time since December 2008, city building and health inspectors have condemned two small twin ranch houses at 718 and 724 W. Thames St. for overcrowded conditions that included bedrooms in the basement, garage and in a front entranceway.

Given the repeat violations, officials at Uncas Health District have referred the matter to the New London County state's attorney's office for possible prosecution.

"Multiple departments are concerned about conditions there, because there is a real concern about safety," Uncas Health District Director Patrick McCormack said. "Apparently, with the number of times this has occurred, we question whether (the owners) have concern."

Inspectors were alerted to the renewed violations at 718 and 724 West Thames St. - both houses owned by Lin Feng Eldridge and Robert Eldridge of Montville - on Oct. 24, when firefighters were called to 718 W. Thames St. to treat a tenant with a head injury. Emergency personnel were led to the basement to treat the patient.

Norwich has wrestled with the problem of overcrowded housing repeatedly in recent years, often associated with illegal rooming houses that attract casino employees. A city ordinance limits occupancy to no more than five unrelated adults per living unit. Safety concerns often include blocked entrances, lack of escape exits in emergencies and overtaxed infrastructure, all of which have been found at the West Thames Street houses.

Fire Lt. James E. Fear Sr. wrote a letter to city building inspectors describing how the basement was divided into three bedrooms and one bathroom with only one stairway out. He also noticed upon arrival that an outdoor statue blocked the front entrance to the house.

Norwich Code Enforcement Officer George Gardner said that front entranceway had been converted into a bedroom as well.

City building inspectors discovered three basement bedrooms, one in the garage and six on the main living floor at 718 W. Thames St., built and zoned as a two-bedroom, single-family house. All the rooms had individual locks and were rented separately to tenants.

The nearly identical two-bedroom single-family house next door at 724 W. Thames St. had two bedrooms in the basement and four on the main floor, all with locks and rented separately to tenants.

Inspectors condemned both houses and ordered all utilities to be disconnected. Gardner said all the displaced tenants were adults.

"Re-occupancy will not be allowed until all illegal construction is removed, the electrical system is repaired, written approval from the Health Department and Zoning is received and a satisfactory complete re-inspection is completed by both Housing and Building (departments)," Gardner wrote in condemnation letters for both houses dated Oct. 25.

Attempts to contact the Eldridges were unsuccessful. Gardner said Robert Eldridge has come to the inspections department to learn specifics of what work is needed to reopen the houses. Eldridge applied for a building permit Thursday to start the work.

All work to remove makeshift bedroom walls and illegal wiring would need building permits before the work starts, Gardner said.

City officials placed relocation liens totaling $25,500 on each house, an amount that was based on the maximum of $4,250 in assistance each tenant could claim in finding a new home, said Janice Thompson, accounting coordinator for the Norwich Department of Human Services.

Thompson said tenants would have to provide proof that they lived at one of the houses to qualify for relocation benefits. To date, no relocation money has been spent, but two tenants have come to the Human Services office seeking assistance, Thompson said.

The two West Thames Street houses are not connected to city sewers and instead are on septic systems sized for the houses, McCormack said. Overloading the systems can cause unsanitary conditions such as the failed septic system in December 2008 that first brought the city's attention to the two houses.

At that time, neighbors had complained about the failed septic system at 718 W. Thames St. Sanitarians from Uncas Health District were inspecting repairs to the failed septic system and noticed smoke emanating from a malfunctioning furnace in the basement. When building inspectors arrived, they discovered illegal basement and main floor bedrooms in the two houses.

Gardner was called back to the houses in August 2010 on a complaint and found four bedrooms in the basement and five on the main floor in each house. Wall partitions and electrical wiring, removed previously, had been reinstalled. Inspectors also discovered an illegal apartment above a garage and ordered bedroom furniture removed and the room closed.

McCormack said he has not been contacted by the state's attorney's office on possible criminal charges. He cited a case in Waterbury where a person died in an illegal attic apartment that had been prosecuted.

"We want to talk to the prosecutor's office," McCormack said. "We made the referral at this point. We offered information, and we haven't gotten an answer back yet."

c.bessette@theday.com

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