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Broken homes: Ridgites fight to stop illegal conversions

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It’s a dicey subject.

Ridgites and politicians are scrambling to stop greedy property owners from illegally dicing up one-family homes into multi-family flophouses, but holes in legislation and enforcement mean there is no silver bullet.

“We have to chip away at this piece by piece,” said Community Board 10 district manager Josephine Beckmann.

The board’s Land Use Committee met twice about the growing problem over the summer recess and is finalizing a list of recommendations to the city for quashing illegal conversions. Chief among them is a request for the Department of Buildings to focus enforcement on “hot spots” where residents log the most 311 complaints about conversions.

The city receives an average of 20,000 illegal conversion complaints a year. Since 2012, the city received more than 1,100 such complaints in Community Board 10 alone, and it has followed up on less than half, our analysis of city data shows.

The city sent inspectors to verify fewer than 300 of the complaints. And in half of those cases, inspectors never got into the building. When the department receives a 311 complaint, it dispatches inspectors to see if the complaint is warranted. But they only make two attempts to enter a questionable building. If nobody lets them in either time, the department just closes the complaint.

Of 282 inspections the department mounted since 2012, 76 resulted in no violation, 29 resulted in some kind of punitive measure by the city, and the other 177 cases were closed because inspectors were turned away at the door or residents were not home, according to city data.

But if the city can send more inspectors to Bay Ridge, it may have better luck getting into suspected conversions, board members said.

“Hot spots are a great way to focus their attention,” said land use committee chairwoman Ann Falutico.

The city’s weak response to the proliferation of illegally converted homes in the area puts people at risk, Bay Ridge residents say.

Tenants in the converted houses often lack adequate light, fresh air, and emergency exits — an issue that also affects firefighters who respond to fires in the mazes of sheetrock and plywood.

Neighbors can be put at risk, too. Digging out an attached home’s basement to make space for bedrooms weakens the entire building, and can lead to collapse that pulls down adjacent, code-compliant buildings. And chopping up houses for too many tenants strains local resources and creates quality-of-life issues for entire neighborhoods.

“School overcrowding is directly tied to illegal conversions,” said Councilman Vincent Gentile (D–Bay Ridge).

Alongside the community board, a grassroots group called the Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance has sprung up to lobby lawmakers and the city and also help residents log 311 complaints.

The group is asking the city to require property owners to register rental units and submit to inspections before signing leases, said Alliance founder and Dyker Heights resident Bob Cassara.

On the legislative front, Gentile introduced a bill this year that would let the city fine property owners for conversion violations based on evidence observable without entering the building. A proliferation of mailboxes or utility meters could indicate a building has been carved up, Gentile said. To clear the violations, compliant property owners would simply have to open their doors to city inspectors. Gentile’s legislation has yet to clear the council’s Housing Committee, but the councilman said he is confident it will go through.

“There is a lot of support for this — you just had to let it ripen,” he said.

Gentile has also authored a bill that would take away self-certification privileges from architects who repeatedly sign off on plans that violate building codes.

Another bill in Albany would create a special category of felony for putting firefighters in danger by subdividing homes.

The responses have focused on tweaking existing laws to eliminate loopholes that shady landowners use to chop up homes. But some property owners don’t go through the city at all before starting work on a subdivision, and those scofflaws will be much tougher to root out, one community board member said.

“We have to remember, this is all about people who are willing to do illegal things in the first place,” said Stephen Harrison.

Reach reporter Max Jaeger at mjaeger@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-8303. Follow him on Twitter @MJaeger88.
Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

Mike from Williamsburg says:
Better solution to illegal conversions: legalize conversions.

Also, force every neighborhood closer to the jobs of Manhattan to upzone. There's no use talking about "greedy property owners" if neighborhoods won't allow new people to come to their neighborhoods. Then it's "greedy neighborhood residents."
Sept. 18, 2014, 8:42 am
ty from pps says:
Since the city seems unable to even enforce illegal curb cuts, this doesn't seem like something it can handle.

That said, Gentile is an idiot. The issue here -- the only real issue -- is health and safety. Not "overcrowding" in the city... a city of 8.5 million and growing.
Sept. 18, 2014, 9:09 am
John from Bay Ridge says:
Ty, Gentile is an idiot, but unfortunately he is our idiot until the end of his term. That said, we need to tackle this issue, because it is a huge safety and quality of life problem. Legislative change is absolutely essential to permit inspectors to establish violations based on evidence obtained form observations outside the structure at issue.
Sept. 18, 2014, 9:18 am
Mike from Maspeth says:
Mike & ty, laws and zoning regulations against these situations exist to avoid a return to a very tragic past. Your comments are flip, snarky and ignorant. Educate yourselves here: http://www.history.com/topics/tenements
Sept. 18, 2014, 9:55 am
ty from pps says:
Mike --
I think we are both agreeing with you... the issue at hand is HEALTH AND SAFETY. The zoning laws that are preventing large single family homes being broken up into 2 and 3 family homes has *nothing* to do with the "tragic past" of tenements. It has everything to do with keeping large swaths of the city at ridiculously low density.

When you have idiots like Gentile whining about "overcrowding" bogeymen, it's just a distraction and does nothing to help.

Mike from Williamsburg is spot on... if stupid zoning rules didn't prevent law-abiding property owners from converting their 4000 sq ft house into three or four apartments with proper egresses and ventilation, maybe the focus could be on the actually dangerous properties -- the tenement-style 'flophouses.'

Instead we have people like Gentile getting in the way and making this about protecting his donor's property values.
Sept. 18, 2014, 10:09 am
Mike from Williamsburg says:
Maspeth Mike, if Bay Ridge became as dense as Fort Greene, no one is going to die of tuberculosis. And let's not even consider if it became as dense as the Upper West Side! Arguments against density are only aesthetic and economic choices, and the economic choice is to make housing expensive.

Flip? Yes. Snarky? You deserve it. But ignorant? That one's on you, my friend.
Sept. 18, 2014, 10:31 am
Barbara from Brooklyn Heights says:
Mike from W
It's not about moving homes closer to one another ( which would remove the beautiful gardens of Bay Ridge ). It is about packing people into spaces that aren't designed to be multiple dwellings. This is most commonly immigrants, taking advantage Of their own community and creating slums. This also ruins otherwise beautiful homes.
No matter what we think - it's illegal because of health and safety codes. I trust that those protect our best interests and should not be relaxed.
Sept. 18, 2014, 12:08 pm
Mike from Williamsburg says:
Are you sure it's illegal for health and safety? Are you sure it's not illegal because it's immigrants moving in who make "slums?"

And of course, the aesthetic preferences that keep housing unaffordable, but you are clear about acknowledging that part. As long as people recognize that their aesthetic preferences keep housing expensive, we can have a debate about whether that's worth the trade-off.
Sept. 18, 2014, 1:08 pm
ty from pps says:
Barbara --
My 900 square foot apartment is the result of dividing a 3,000 sq ft house into multiple dwellings. The outside looks exactly the same as my neighbor's house that is still a 1-family house.... wait, no. I take that back. There are 3 doorbells now. You're right. It's now a slum.
Sept. 18, 2014, 2:22 pm
jay from nyc says:
ty I get where you are going with that and you are not wrong, but I would point out that your pace was probably cut up legally and is compliance with relevant building and safety codes.
These illegal places frequently are not, they typically lack things like a second means of egress, fire escapes, and are not built with materials that meet minimum safety ratings for things like being able to withstand a fire for certain periods of time, and not to mention things like electrical and gas line issues. The illegal conversions are death traps just waiting to claim victims.
And Barbara, no its not about immigrants, legal or not, there are plenty of legal people both living in illegal apartments and many "landlords" who are U.S. citizens that are only too happy to turn a place into a death trap to make a few bucks, and they don't care who gets hurt, so try to be objective here and not turn this into a discussion which is both not relevant, and also smacks of racism.
The rules of building safety exist for a reason, it would be nice if the city could pay for better enforcement, but it would also be nice if scum bags would stopping placing peoples lives in jeopardy to make a buck.
Sept. 18, 2014, 8:11 pm
ty from pps says:
No, now you're making assumptions. I live in an illegal divide together with my large, extended Chinese family. We could otherwise never afford this glamorous address with only our earnings from the reastaurant and the sweat shop.
Much like Mike from Williamsburg - I resent deeply that Bay Ridge has nice houses. In fact, I demand that they all be turned into rooming houses!!!! It worked well for Prospect Heights in the 70's, right?
Sept. 19, 2014, 1:01 am
Vanessa from Park Slope says:
Mike - Robert Moses had a similar idea as you: remove all aesthetics and transform the city into anonymous boxes for efficiency. It's soul destroying and frankly pointless.
Housing costs relate to desireability. Where you live is the clearest illustration of that. This city has loads of affordable housing. I mean high quality places. They're all over queens, Coney Island, East Flatbush, Brownsville, East New York, the Bronx, Flatlands - I can go on.
There's no shortage. I see therefore no need to limit the diversity of housing options and change everything to carved up little boxes. Bay Ridge is a fairly unique neighborhood in Brooklyn, so it would be taking away from the City to remove it's unique charm.
Furthermore - Bay Ridge has plenty of affordable multiple dwellings that are legal and up to code. Every shop on fifth and third avenue have small and affordable apartments above them!
Sept. 19, 2014, 1:43 am
Me from Bay Ridge says:
These places are also not owner occupied and are poorly taken care of -- garbage area messy, proper recycling not done, snow not removed, sidewalks not swept.
Sept. 19, 2014, 2:26 am
Bob from Williamsburg says:
Excuse me "me", but where these people come from there is no snow, and garbage is called "food" (or however you say good on Chinese/arabic). You are judging them according to unfair standards. How can you expect them to know American cultural norms when they don't even speak English?!
Sept. 19, 2014, 7:38 am
Common Cents from Crown Heights says:
Vanessa you're spot on. NYC does have a lot of housing. I see plenty empty apartments for rent everyday as well as co-ops/condos starting around 110K for a 1 bedroom. Every week I pass by Plaza street and see moving trucks in front of the pre-war buildings as well as that all glass monstrosity. A few months ago a friend of mines was looking for a place, we found spots 850-1100 for a 1 bdrm in pre-war buildings. I think the issue is unless you've been in NYC for a while you don't know how to find these places. If you are miles away and searching for a place via the internet or just landing in NYC you're more than likely going through a broker, which is not the cost effective way to do it.
Sept. 19, 2014, 7:58 am
Me from Bay Ridge says:
BOB, so they can't learn to shovel snow or contain the garbage because it's not done where "these people" as you put it, came from? Besides, my point was that the owner does not live there and the "tenants" are transients and don't care.
Sept. 19, 2014, 8:25 am
Mike from Williamsburg says:
Yes, NYC has "a lot" of housing. It also has "a lot" of people. However, we know the vacancy rate is low. We know prices keep going up further and further away from the job centers of the region.

Vanessa, I never said people shouldn't have a diversity of housing options because that is not something I believe. However, I do believe people shouldn't get to have low density housing near quality transit options unless they're going to pay the same property taxes an apartment building would.

If you want to hurl the Robert Moses stone at me, which doesn't make sense, I will simply point out that you're no different than the rich folks in the Hamptons or Westchester who use the zoning code specifically to keep middle class and poor people out of your neighborhoods.
Sept. 19, 2014, 8:29 am
Mike from Maspeth says:
So I guess neither of you, ty and Mike from Williamsburg, could be bothered to actually read that simple link about the origins of the tenements. It was very much like what is going on in Bay Ridge, and it was going on in Sunset Park for years before the city stepped in. You can't take a house designed for 1-4 families and allow it to be chopped up with dangerous and illegal construction to cram 36 to 50 people in them! And that's what was happening in Sunset Park.

Did either of you get to Sunset Park to see the problem while it was happening? Have you even been to Bay Ridge to see what's going on? Or are you just talking about what you think must be the case, and not the reality of the situation? Or, Mike, are you just planning on carving up some places and cashing in?
Sept. 19, 2014, 9:54 am
old time brooklyn from slope says:
ty and mike should have laugh tracks with their posts.
Sept. 20, 2014, 3:08 pm
Cat from Bensonhurst says:
This situation will only get worse. I complained several years ago about homes on my block being converted into boarding houses. It is criminal. I would say 90% of the homes on my block that have been sold over the past five years has been converted. I live on a block that consists of row houses, if one goes up in flames we are all going. The Building Dept. told me unless they are given access to the residence there is nothing they can do. I only hope that the value of the houses continue to rise in the area and I can sell in a few years and get out.
Sept. 21, 2014, 2:35 pm
Eighty eight from sunset park says:
This is a very simple matter. Up zone instead of down zone. If you up zone and allow owners to legally install a 2nd mean of egress or sprinkler system they will. If there are too many kids for schools built more schools. This is about safety and the kids. If you cant stop them moving in make sure they are safe and have enough legal space when they are here. Every where in the world politicians welcome growth in their neighborhood and only in bayridge they think its a problem. Maybe we should downzone manhattan and turn it back to the 1800s.
Oct. 19, 2014, 7:54 am

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