STAMFORD – Shippan residents are forming a neighborhood coalition to fight developers such as the one who bought a 1,100-square-foot single-family Cape Cod, knocked it down, and built a 4,100-square foot two-family house that now towers over Ponus Avenue.
Residents say the house, which takes up every allowable inch of the little .14-acre lot, opens the door to more of the same. That will destroy their community of affordable bungalows, residents say.
The developer, Paul Gudas, owner of Sky View Builders, says he obtained all the proper permits, which zoning officials confirm. Gudas says residents should be glad for his house because it increases the value of the neighborhood. He has the house for sale for $1.8 million; alternatively, he’s looking to rent the two apartments for $5,000 to $6,000 a month, each.
Residents say those rents are significantly more than the monthly costs of their mortgages and taxes together.
So the developer and the neighbors don’t see eye to eye.
But they agree on something.
“The biggest problem in Stamford is all the illegal apartments. Here, anybody can do anything,” said Gudas, who says he’s been developing properties in the city for many years. “It has to be investigated.”
Illegal apartments ruin neighborhoods as much as profit-hungry developers, said Chuck Keeler, a Mohegan Avenue resident.
“Does anyone even know how many illegal apartments there are around here? That’s half the problem,” Keeler said. “But nobody in city hall gives a damn.”
Three where there should be two
Gudas said that in the months he and his crew were building his tall two-family, he observed the happenings on Ponus, Mohegan, Algonquin and Wampanaw avenues, and Rippowam and Iroquois roads, what Stamford residents call “the Indian streets” of Shippan.
“There are two-family houses with three families living there, renting,” Gudas said. “At night you cannot park your car.”
It’s a problem, Keeler said.
“You have houses that have six cars. You have work vans. They block driveways; they’re parked in front of fire hydrants and stop signs,” Keeler said. “Cars are parked so close to your driveway that you can’t get out, and you have to go knock on doors to find a person who can move it. I have a neighbor who leaves her trash bins out front all the time so no one parks overlapping her driveway.”
A few years ago he went to the city building department to ask whether it’s legal to make a front yard into a parking lot, Keeler said.
“They told me you can’t do that. They said they knew about the guy in the neighborhood who paved his yard because he came in and asked about it, and they told him he couldn’t do it. The guy said he was going to do it anyway, and then he did,” Keeler said. “And the Building Department did nothing about it.”
It’s not fair, Gudas said.
“I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to build that place on Ponus. It took us one year and two months to get all the approvals. I did everything by the book,” the developer said. “Now I see a neighbor renting half of their building and they didn’t spend anything or get any permits. How unfair is that, doing it illegally? The town should not allow it.”
Stamford residents have complained about illegal apartments for years, reporting single-family houses that are converted into two- and three-family houses; apartments where tenants sublease 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; roofs with multiple satellite dishes; single-family homes with half a dozen utility meters; and lawns paved with asphalt.
Section 1 of the city’s zoning regulations states that the purposes of the zoning code include “to provide adequate open spaces for light and air;” ”to prevent undue concentration of population;” “to lessen congestion on streets;” “to promote health, safety and the general welfare;” and “to regulate and limit the density of population.” The city’s Master Plan mandates that “the character of Stamford’s neighborhoods will be supported and enhanced.”
So “why isn’t anybody enforcing anything?” asked Cathy Garvey, a Mohegan Avenue resident.
You have to complain
Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing and Chief Building Official Shawn Reed said neither of their departments got money in the 2023-24 budget, which takes effect July 1, to hire a dedicated illegal apartment inspector.
Blessing said Director of Operations Matt Quinones is working on a plan to create an enforcement department. Quinones did not return a request for comment Friday.
Blessing and Reed said they rely on the city’s online citizen complaint forum, FixIt Stamford, for information about possible illegal apartments.
“When a complaint is received through FixIt, an inspector is assigned and inspects the site,” Blessing said.
He said the Land Use Bureau received two new complaints during the week of May 22, and 20 complaint-based inspections were conducted.
Reed said the building department fields about 10 illegal apartment complaints in a year.
Shippan residents told CT Examiner they either didn’t know about FixIt Stamford, or they filled out a form and the problem was not solved.
Yet inspections of possible illegal rentals depend on complaints from residents, Blessing and Reed said.
“Of course, when inspectors see something when they are in the field … they get active as well,” Blessing added.
Filing a report using FixIt Stamford is the preferred method, he said.
“This way the complaint can be tracked and residents can receive updates,” Blessing said. “If we get a complaint by phone or email, we create a FixIt complaint” for it.
Residents also may call the Citizens’ Service Center at (203) 977-4140. FixIt reports, as well as calls, may be anonymous, Blessing said.
Residents say the system needs repair, because the problems are getting serious.
Do-it-yourself septic system?
Someone on Ponus Avenue, for example, has a shack in their yard and added a septic tank, renting the space for about $1,600 a month, residents said.
Other people put apartments behind their homes but don’t let the tenants use the driveway. So the tenants park on busy Shippan Avenue, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, residents said.
Cars parked on Shippan Avenue at the corners of Rippowam and Iroquois roads pose dangers, residents said. The parked cars block the sight lines of drivers trying to pull onto Shippan Avenue, where traffic moves fast, they said.
“There have been so many close calls,” said Kathy Stenbech of Algonquin Avenue. “I’m just waiting for someone to get hurt.”
“If we keep adding apartments and we don’t add any parking, it’s going to keep getting worse,” said Leigh Frecker of Ponus Avenue. “Especially in summer.”
That’s because a small shorefront public park, West Beach, is a short walk away.
“On an 85-degree day in July, we can’t have parties at our houses because there is nowhere for our guests to park,” said Lisa Marino of Rippowam Road. “The city has a (residential parking) permit program, but you need a certain amount of signatures from people living on the street. We’ll never get the signatures because the absentee landlords don’t care, and a lot of the tenants, for whatever reason, don’t care.”
Gudas said the problem is so rampant that some people don’t understand that you can’t just tack an apartment onto a house.
“They don’t even know they are doing illegal rentals because so many people are doing it for so long,” he said.
Neighborhoods like hers are under stress, said Garvey, one of the Mohegan Avenue residents. It’s bad enough that developers are shopping for lots where they can squeeze in pricey rentals, she said. The illegal apartment free-for-all makes it worse, she said.
“Many of the homeowners are single female heads of household. We’re here because these are small homes that we could afford to buy,” Garvey said.
The illegal units make it difficult to live day to day, and developers “want to replace homes you can own with apartments you can’t afford to rent,” Garvey said.
“If this keeps happening, this community will go away,” Garvey said. “All that will be left is absentee landlords.”