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Long-awaited ‘illegal conversion’ bill is here, but doesn’t protect victims, critics say

Power of the people: Southern Brooklyn residents have pushed lawmakers to create the illegal conversions bill for years.
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Critics say it’s a dicey bill.

Brooklyn lawmakers introduced a long-awaited bill on June 21 to combat illegal home construction that activists say is tearing apart Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights, but critics say it could put immigrant families in a bind. A legal snag significantly delayed the legislation, so lawmakers dropped a sticky provision that created a relief fund for residents of diced-up homes who are displaced by city-issued vacate orders. But cracking down on illegal housing without a safety net will drive tenants — many of whom are immigrants — onto the streets or into overcrowded housing conditions, critics say.

“Given that the city has very little affordable housing options, where are they going to go?” said Aniqa Nawabi a spokeswoman for Chhaya Community Development Corporation, which advocates for Asian immigrants. “There can be overcrowding in other apartments, because people will go to live with family, 10 to an apartment.”

But legislators had to cut the provision, because it was holding up the works, according to the bill’s primary sponsor, who argued the plan would lead to few evictions, because the city only issues vacate orders on “immediately hazardous” buildings.

“It gives the commi ssioner the option if they find a fire is about to erupt or there’s smoke conditions or gas,” Councilman Vincent Gentile (D-Bay Ridge) said. “So not everyone will be displaced — the owner will get fined, the fine will go through, and they’ll financially suffer, but that doesn’t mean there will be a vacate order.”

The legislation, announced to great fanfare in March last year, would create a building violation called “aggravated illegal conversion” — denoting a flippant attempt to subdivide a house against code — that comes with a $15,000-per-unit fine for smaller homes with three or more illegal units. It would also let the Department of Buildings obtain warrants for suspected conversions and put liens on buildings whose owners do not pay up.

It does not affect buildings with fewer than three illegal units to protect otherwise compliant property owners who create basement apartments. Nawabi and Chhaya say the city should go a step further on that front and legalize basement apartments so it can better regulate them.

The bill initially directed fines collected into a fund for families forced to vacate illegal conversions, but lawmakers cannot tell the mayor-controlled Department of Buildings what to do with its money, Gentile said. Instead the measure requires a written agreement between Council and the mayor. A statement from the mayor’s office stopped short of endorsing the agreement but suggested he was open to it.

“We are currently reviewing the legislation and remain committed to helping every displaced resident relocate and get the immediate assistance they deserve,” spokesman Austin Finan said.

Council will have to re-sign the agreement with each new mayor, Gentile said. Alternatively, the Department of Buildings could create its own rules diverting fines into a displacement fund, he said. Illegal conversions are dangerous to tenants, neighbors, and first responders, the bill’s proponents say. They also lend to school overcrowding and ruin neighborhood character, activists and pols say. Roughly two dozen locals came to a rally Monday night heralding the bill’s introduction.

Borough President Adams and Council Housing Committee chairman Jumaane Williams are co-sponsors, and the trip hopes to make the proposal law by the end of the year, Gentile said.

Reach reporter Dennis Lynch at (718) 260–2508 or e-mail him at dlynch@cnglocal.com.
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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