New bill to battle illegal conversions unveiled at Dyker town hall

Building a case: Dyker Heights Civic Association president Fran Vella Marrone questions a Department of Buildings commisisoner about how it inspects suspected conversions at a town hall meeting on Feb. 26.
Photo by Georgine Benvenuto

The city is taking steps to put Brooklyn’s illegal home conversion problem on ice, but locals say the battle is just heating up.

The Department of Buildings is sending more inspectors to Brooklyn, and Borough President Adams introduced a multi-pronged bill to fight illegal home conversions, officials announced at a town hall meeting on Feb. 26. But residents who see their neighborhood being crowded and endangered by shady building practices say they’ll only rest when they see results.

“This is just the beginning of the fight,” said Fran Vella Marrone, president of the Dyker Heights Civic Association and an organizer of the meeting.

The city shifted more building inspectors to Brooklyn last summer to step up enforcement in response to a rise in complaints, an official said.

“The vast majority of illegal conversions were in Queens [before 2009],” said Tim Hogan, a deputy commissioner with the buildings department. “The numbers are changing now, and as recently as July of last year, we transferred some of the Queens unit into Brooklyn. In doing so we have increased fourfold the number of access warrants that we have applied for and received in Brooklyn.”

The borough president and two Brooklyn councilmen are now pushing a law to give those additional inspectors more teeth.

Adams and councilmen Vincent Gentile (D–Bay Ridge) and Jumaane Wiliams (D–East Flatbush) have introduced legislation to create a new building code violation for illegal subdivisions and a minimum $45,000 fine for landlords who turn a single unit into three or more. It would also relax criteria for obtaining warrants to inspect suspicious properties.

Critics have long panned the city for failing to collect fines form landlords, which currently total $640 million in uncollected cash, Marrone said.

Fired up: Shouting erupted several times from the hundreds-strong crowd, including one instance where a man yelled that he “felt a little uncomfortable with an Asian in the room.”
Photo by Georgine Benvenuto

Currently, the main leverage the buildings department has to collect fines for doing work without a permit comes only if a scofflaw landlord eventually comes to the agency to ask for one.

But under the proposed bill, the city could put a lien against homes with unpaid conversion violations, allowing it collect when the property is sold.

The bill also stipulates that the revenue from the fines would be earmarked for a fund to provide three months of housing to tenants booted from subdivided homes by enforcement actions, a spokesman for Adams said.

“For the first time, we would properly address the displacement problem that occurs when enforcement on these units occurs, helping to prevent homelessness for innocent families,” Adams said in a statement.

Another local called the proposals smart first steps toward fixing a long-broken enforcement system.

“It’s a good start,” said Bob Cassara, who heads the Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance, which helped organize the Feb. 26 town hall. “Right now, they can’t collect the fines. But when you have an outstanding debt and it goes to collectors, they’re going get it — even if they’re only getting pennies on the dollar — they’re going to collect it. Buildings will be sold. This will be part of the solution.”

But the proposal only punishes landlords once the deed is done, and a comprehensive approach calls for preventative legislation to scrutinize property owners and contractors before they have a chance to violate the building codes, according to a Bay Ridge preservationist.

“I applaud the legislation proposed by the borough president and councilmen, but the problem with the legislation is it can take so long to pass and implement,” Victoria Hofmo said. “While the legislation is in the council, I hope for more expeditious policy changes.”

Broken system: Bob Cassara of the Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance points out how a landlord changed a house in a way that doesn’t comply with building code but which was approved via self-certification — a process where architects simply vouch to the city that their plans are kosher.
Photo by Georgine Benvenuto

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

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