Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brothers may never have found out they were living in their house illegally for 13 years if not for a routine check by a city organization designed to protect New Haven residents like them from dangerous housing situations.

Despite efforts in 2001 from both fraternity members and city officials to establish the appropriate documentation and title for the house, city officials never recognized SAE’s 35 High St. house as an official fraternity house. After city officials reviewed records of New Haven’s Livable City Initiative Residential Licensing Program last April, they told the fraternity brothers they needed to get their paperwork in order.

SAE members said they have begun the process for official city recognition. Four fraternity members, including SAE President Jamie Coleman ’11, appeared before the Board of Zoning Appeals last Wednesday to present verification of their off-site parking lease, a requirement to receive the permit.

The Liveable City Initiative, created in 1996, is a New Haven program meant to support and develop safe, attractive neighborhoods. In 2006, it began an effort to educate and enforce proper housing codes in New Haven.

SAE acquired its house in 1996. At the time, it was listed as a single-family residence. That year, the fraternity successfully applied to the city for a “Special Exemption” to convert the single-family residence into a communal living residence on the condition that the fraternity obtain a proper building permit and certificates of occupancy. The fraternity, however, did not follow through, according to city records.

In 2001, the Livable City Initiative again informed SAE of the fraternity’s incorrect license, according to city records. Though city records said the fraternity sent in incomplete forms, Livable City Initiative Director Andrew Rizzo said enforcement was not a top priority at the time, and the brothers continued to live at 35 High St. illegally.

“Sometimes things just fall under the radar,” Rizzo added.

He said the fraternity, upon receiving a letter from the city last April, was quick to apply for approval.

“They’ve been operating all these years illegally,” Rizzo said. “We’re clamping down.”

Coleman, SAE’s president, said that after receiving initial approval from the city in 1996 to live at 35 High St., the fraternity brothers believed they had acquired the proper documentation to convert the house to a communal living residence.

“We went to this meeting last week,” Coleman said. “But we thought we had [received the city license] 10 years ago.”

To establish their status as a fraternity house, SAE members must first acquire a permit to convert a single-family residence to a rooming house, Rizzo said. A fraternal residence requires, for example, more fire detectors than a residence, Rizzo said, for public safety reasons. (New Haven Health Department environmental director Paul Kowalski added that the SAE building currently does not break any health violations.)

Upon approval by the fire marshal, the New Haven Police Department, the Board of Zoning Appeals and other city groups, the house would receive a city Certificate for Use and Occupancy. Only then can the brothers apply for the license to legally establish their residence as a fraternity house, Rizzo said.

SAE’s lawyer, Jim Segaloff, declined to comment on zoning involving the fraternity house.

Eight of SAE’s 65 members currently live at 35 High St.

Esther Zuckerman contributed reporting.