City has powerful weapon against illegal conversions — but doesn’t use it

Broken homes: Ridgites fight to stop illegal conversions

A software system the city uses to clamp down on residents who illegally rent their apartments over the internet should be used to put an end to the illegal dicing up of homes in Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights, pols said.

A sophisticated data-crunching and workflow platform called Palantir is helping the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement crack down on peer-to-peer apartment sharing services like Airbnb at an unprecedented rate, according to a WNYC report. But the city isn’t using the software to combat illegal home conversions, and area officials say that needs to change.

“If they have a program that tracks the illegal hotels, then it should be easy enough to track illegal conversions, whether through the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement or through the Department of Buildings,” said Councilman Vincent Gentile (D–Bay Ridge). “We reached out to the mayor’s office, and so far no one could give us an answer as to why they’re not using this for illegal conversions.”

Landlords in Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, and Dyker Heights are violating building and fire codes by subdividing small homes into multi-family apartments at an alarming rate, locals said. The practice creates dangerous living conditions and strains city services.

New Yorkers registered upwards of 100,000 complaints to the Department of Buildings through 311 in 2014 — 1,100 about illegal hotels and 26,000 for illegal home conversions, city data show. A spokesman could not provide the number of inspectors the department employs, but reports put the figure around 200.

Software like Palantir helps agencies make the most of their staff, an official said.

“Thirty percent more work with the same exact staff,” the acting director of the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement, Elan Parra, told WYNC. “I guess maybe you could call it ‘Moneyball’ for quality-of-life violations.”

But the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement focuses on quality of life issues, not buildings issues, a spokeswoman said.

The agency started using Palantir in 2011, a spokeswoman said. The program’s holistic approach to raw city data attracted the mayor’s office, an official said.

“When the opportunity to work with Palantir came along, we seized it, because we knew reporting, data collection, following through on violations, seeing who the worst of the worst are — all of that could be handled better,” said Special Enforcement’s former director, Kathleen McGee, in 2013.

The buildings department still uses its own internal system to track complaints, but its methods have gotten more sophisticated in the last decade. In 2011, it started using big data to prioritize suspected conversions that pose the greatest risk of fire, a former city number-cruncher said.

If new software can build on existing improvements, the city needs to use it, another lawmaker said.

“If this is a tool that would help us save lives in the future, it’s something that we should definitely take seriously and ask the mayor’s people to implement it,” said state Sen. Martin Golden (R–Bay Ridge).

Palantir is a Central-Intelligence-Agency-funded Silicon Valley firm that derives its name from a magic rock in the “Lord of the Rings” series that grants remote vision. An executive has described its software as allowing “the modern-day equivalents of Middle Earth warriors in every discipline [to] be more effective against the adversary.” Palantir co-founder Peter Thiel is trying to build a libertarian, techno-utopian island city in an ocean somewhere.

The Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance & The Dyker Heights Civic Association will hold a joint town hall on the issue of illegal conversions at Archbishop John Hughes Knights of Columbus (1305 86th St. between 13th and 14th avenues in Dyker Hieghts) at 7 pm on Feb. 26.

Reach reporter Max Jaeger at mjaeg‌er@cn‌gloca‌l.com or by calling (718) 260–8303. Follow him on Twitter @JustTheMax.