On May 2, the friends of a 46-year-old Stamford man could not reach him by telephone, so they went to the door of his basement apartment in a single-family house downtown.
They heard the shower running. They knocked, but the man did not answer. They called police.
Officers arrived, heard the shower – and that the man always responds to phone messages from his friends – and decided to force the door open.
They found the man, identified for now only as a native of Morocco, dead in the running shower. There were no wounds, no signs of foul play, no history of a medical condition.
What happened next ties the man’s fate to an escalating problem in Stamford. Housing is prohibitively expensive, which has resulted in the proliferation of an underground market of illegal apartments.
“The following day, we got a call from the medical examiner’s office. They said they weren’t done with the testing yet, but it appeared the man could have died from carbon monoxide poisoning,” Stamford Police Capt. Richard Conklin said. “So we called in a cadre of people from the building department, the health department, and the fire marshal’s office, and rushed back to the home.”
It was divided into “numerous” illegal apartments where at least a dozen individuals lived, Conklin said. Police took the people out.
“Two were feeling faint and went to the hospital,” Conklin said. “They survived. That call from the medical examiner may have saved some lives.”
Inspectors found multiple violations of health and safety codes, he said. The man from Morocco was living next to heaters and a boiler, and the exhaust pipe for the water heater, which was installed without a permit, vented carbon monoxide into the bathroom.
The case remains open while police await the medical examiner’s final report, Conklin said. It may result in a criminal investigation.
The house at 31 Hillcrest Ave. has been condemned.
City property tax records show the 1920 colonial is 1,739 square feet with four bedrooms, one bathroom and one half-bath, for a total of eight rooms.
According to city records, it was sold to Eliane Fils in 2020, though the sale price is listed as $0. Contact information for Fils could not be found.
Conklin said his department “made a conscious decision” to publicize the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning, even while the medical examiner works to confirm the cause of death.
“With the crunch in affordable housing, these illegal apartments are quite common. This is a community safety thing,” Conklin said. “We were concerned there could be a repeat” of carbon monoxide exposure.
Stamford residents have been complaining about illegal apartments for years, reporting single-family houses that are converted into two- and three-family; apartments where tenants sub-lease to secondary tenants; people who purchase single-family homes with the intent to carve them into apartments; streets packed with parked cars; porches with multiple mailboxes; one-family dwellings with half a dozen utility meters.
“When we do surveillance, we’ll see a van come up to a house, and all these people come out and get in the van,” Conklin said. “You think, ‘Where are all these people coming from?’ In residential neighborhoods, you’ll see cars double-parked, parked on the grass, on the sidewalk. It’s usually an indication that there are illegal apartments.”
They can be deadly.
Conklin recalled an incident on the East Side in which a man went out drinking and arrived home to his illegal attic apartment intoxicated. The man fell from a ladder that provided the only access to the apartment, broke his neck and died.
West Side residents five years ago used a ladder to rescue each other when their multifamily house on Alden Street caught fire.
It started in a 5-by-7-foot illegal apartment made of plywood that was built on a rear porch, and home to a 65-year-old man. The fire started in a power strip and extension cord that ran a microwave, air conditioner, space heater and other appliances.
All the tenants escaped, but the fire burned the house next door and flooded dense smoke into Stamford Hospital across the street. Hospital staff had to close air vents and move patients away from the smoke.
Three months after that 2017 fire, then-state Rep. Caroline Simmons said the city and the state needed to do more to ensure zoning and safety codes are enforced, and that she would work on obtaining more municipal aid.
Simmons, now mayor of Stamford, and her staff did not respond Thursday to a request for comment on what her administration will do to enforce laws governing illegal apartments.
Inadequate enforcement showed up in a $237,500 report commissioned by the city and accepted by the Planning Board this week. The report fulfills a state mandate that all towns provide a housing affordability plan.
“The city should seek ways to monitor overcrowding and address substandard housing and code enforcement issues,” the report reads.
The Board of Representatives also is concerned about housing safety. On Monday the board’s Operations Committee will discuss the need for more inspectors.
Zoning inspectors identify apartments as illegal, and building, health and fire inspectors identify safety issues such as venting carbon monoxide.
Stamford, population 135,000, has a zoning department with one enforcement officer and three inspectors. Greenwich, population 63,500, has eight full-time zoning enforcement personnel plus one part-timer, according to its website.