Public Advocate Eyes Illegal Conversion Fix
By DOMENICK RAFTER
In a borough populated with new immigrant families and young recent college grads looking for an affordable place to live, illegal conversions are a problem that everyone knows exists, but few are willing to take it on.
But illegally converted apartments can be more than a nuisance, they can be fatal. Often firefighters have trouble navigating illegally converted apartments during fires, putting their lives and the lives of anyone trapped inside at risk. Last week, a 12-year-old boy in the Bronx died in a fire in an illegally converted apartment.
Some neighborhoods in Queens have become notorious for illegal conversions. Semi-attached houses in Ridgewood, Woodside, Middle Village and Jamaica are often divided into four or five different apartments. In Flushing and Astoria, newly constructed apartment buildings house 2-3 families per apartment. In Kew Gardens and Richmond Hill, large Victorian homes often house a large family of 15-20 people. The problem is what triggered the Dept. of City Planning to propose rezoning a significant portion of Richmond Hill.
Though the city receives thousands of complaints about illegal conversions each year, only a handful ever end in fines. DOB officers sent to investigate the complaints are often denied entry and the complaints are often closed after two tries; homeowners, expecting visits from the DOB, have become smart on how to avoid encountering an inspector. The problem has led Public Advocate Bill de Blasio to call for reforming the way the DOB responds to complaints.
"We see illegally divided housing across Queens, both in neighborhoods dominated by big apartment buildings and those made up single-family homes," de Blasio said. "Wherever it happens, it is dangerous and the Dept. of Buildings needs to respond rapidly to reports they receive. It should not take the Dept. of Buildings weeks to dispatch inspectors, only to have many of them stymied by locked doors. The Department must accelerate its inspection process and increase its attempts to gain access to illegally subdivided units."
Among the things de Blasio would like to see the DOB change is the hours of inspection visits, so that owners are at home when inspectors come. Currently, most visits occur during the day when homeowners may be at work. He added that the DOB should have a quicker response time to complaints, which can sometimes be more than a month, and they should prioritize illegal conversions.
Borough President Helen Marshall included a page on her Web site dedicated to illegal conversions. Her "Fighting Illegal Conversions: A Comprehensive Guide for Communities" outlines ways to spot illegal conversions and how to report and fix existing violations and get permits to legalize conversions.
"Part of the reason for the proliferation of illegal apartments is that many homeowners and their tenants do not know what constitutes an illegal dwelling or how to seek remedies," Marshall wrote on her Web site.
According to 311, most of the complaints about illegal conversions in Queens, nearly a third, have been in Community Board 7, especially in Flushing, College Point and Whitestone.
A number of those complaints have been "closed" because the DOB could not gain entry to the building.
Reach Reporter Domenick Rafter at firstname.lastname@example.org or (718) 357-7400, Ext. 125.