The rash of illegal home conversions in Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, and Bensonhurst is causing a school-overcrowding crisis, and the city isn’t taking the issue seriously, locals say.
The practice of subdividing two-family homes into multi-family apartments is bringing more kids to District 20 schools than classrooms can handle, according to local leaders. A section of Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights with the most 311 complaints of illegal home conversions in the area also has the most overcrowded elementary schools, according to our analysis of school enrollment and 311 complaints within community boards 10 and 11.
The School for Future Leaders, the Ralph A. Fabrizio School, PS 127, and PS 176 enrolled at least 1.5 times their stated capacity in 2014, Department of Education data show. The four elementary schools sit within the same square mile of Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights where 311 has received the heaviest concentration of illegal conversion complaints since 2010.
At 171-percent enrollment, Dyker Heights’ PS 176 is the most overcrowded of all of District 20’s 37 schools, and the situation is having a clear, negative impact on kids, according to the administrator of the neighborhood’s community board.
“At PS 176, there are kids in hallways,” said Community Board 10 district manager Josephine Beckmann.
The school zones in District 20 where the Department of Buildings has issued the most illegal conversion tickets also tend to have more overcrowded schools, data show. The city slapped eight building owners within the area zoned for PS 176 with violations since 2010, more than areas zoned for other schools, according to city data. Enforcement of the laws prohibiting chopping up residences into many apartments is notoriously lax, as the city sent inspectors to investigate fewer than half of the complaints in the area since 2012, and inspector protocol is to close a complaint if no one at the address lets them in after two visits.
The main driver of school overcrowding and the illegal home conversions is population growth due to immigration, according to Community Board 10’s education committee chair.
“The number one issue is immigration,” said Bob Hudock. “Bensonhurst is the number two neighborhood in the city for foreign-born immigrants.”
A 2013 report from the Department of City Planning found that Bensonhurst has the second-highest number of foreign-born residents in the city.
A lack of low-priced housing drives families into illegally converted homes, and Hudock believes that causes the city to underestimate just how big the population boom is, since tenants in the cramped apartments typically try to avoid official notice, skewing census data. Also, landlords who illegally subdivide houses routinely lie to the city about the numbers of units and occupants, said Hudock, making city records an inaccurate measure of local population in areas with high rates of illegal conversions.
The Department of Education uses data from the departments of health, housing preservation, city planning, and buildings to project future seat needs, according to a spokesman, who said the projections “have been accurate to around 1 to 2 percent” during the last decade.
But in a seeming vindication of Hudock’s criticism, the Department of Education’s plan to add seats to District 20 falls more than 30 percent short of the district’s current stated needs.
The city plans to create 4,044 new elementary school seats in the district as soon as it finds a suitable site to build, according to Beckmann, but even that many new seats wouldn’t bring District 20’s schools down to 100 percent of official capacity.
There are 25,594 students currently enrolled in the district’s 37 elementary schools and only 19,760 seats, so even after those planned seats are added, there will still be a 1,790-desk shortfall.
Local pols are calling on city agencies need to work together to shed light on the growing problem of illegal conversions, and one Brooklyn lawmaker suggested the Department of Education start reporting obvious red flags to the buildings department as a first step.
“When they’ve got 12 kids listed at one address, they should be telling the Department of Buildings,” said Assemblyman Peter Abbate (D–Sunset Park). “I don’t think the city is taking this seriously right now.”