Bensonhurst blaze sparks calls for a crackdown on illegal home conversions

Paula Katinas

March 05, 2020

Originally published in Brooklyn Daily Eagle on March 05, 2020.

A house fire that displaced 29 people last month is raising new concerns over illegal home conversions in Brooklyn.

A group of local elected officials has written a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio and Department of Buildings Commissioner Melanie La Rocca urging them to enforce rules against illegal home conversions following a three-alarm fire that ripped through a two-story house on 85th Street in Bensonhurst on Feb. 14, displacing 29 people and injuring one firefighter.

An inspection after the blaze found what appeared to be an illegally converted apartment, complete with illegal gas and plumbing lines, in the house’s attic, the lawmakers said.

“This demonstrates that these homes are dangerous fire hazards to both the people living in them — often low-income, immigrant New Yorkers — and to neighbors. As you are well aware, there has been a proliferation of such homes in our district in recent years, with two-family homes turning into 6-family homes or even 10-family homes,” State Sen. Andrew Gounardes, Councilmember Justin Brannan, Assemblymembers Peter Abbate Jr. and Mathylde Frontus and U.S. Rep. Max Rose wrote in the letter.

“We understand the legal barriers, particularly the difficulty obtaining a warrant, and we are eager to work with you to navigate these challenges. However, it is also vital that City Hall takes this seriously and makes a strong effort to enforce these laws, including proactive inspections, multiple attempts made to enter and education of tenants, landlords and contractors,” the lawmakers wrote.

Illegal home conversions take place when a property owner subdivides a single-family or two-family home into multiple units, in some cases as small as a single room, and rents them out to tenants.

The problem has proliferated in neighborhoods like Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and Bensonhurst over the past several years as the city’s affordable housing crunch has escalated.

New York City does have laws in place to crack down on illegal home conversions, including Local Law 94, which was passed in 2017 and is known as the Aggravated Illegal Conversions Law. Under the law, unscrupulous landlords who engage in illegal home conversions could be hit with fines of up to $15,000 per illegally converted unit.

The local lawmakers charged that because of a lack of enforcement by the Dept. of Buildings, the Aggravated Illegal Conversions Law has not been put to good use.

There have been several examples of illegal home conversion in Southwest Brooklyn.

One of the most dramatic incidents took place in 2016, when inspectors found more than 30 people living in a two-family house at 6705 Seventh Ave. in Dyker Heights.

Inspectors discovered safety hazards that included a lack of egress, compromised plumbing, sloppy electrical and gas lines and severe overcrowding. The city deemed the home a safety hazard and ordered all of the tenants out.

“Dangerous, substandard, illegally-converted housing is not affordable housing,” Gounardes told the Eagle after sending the letter to de Blasio and La Rocca. “It is a terrible hazard for those living in these homes and neighbors. I have prioritized addressing our affordable housing crisis, which we must tackle head-on, by passing the strongest tenant protections in a generation and fighting for property tax relief for low and middle-income New Yorkers. But endangering our communities and cramming 30 people into a two-family home is a recipe for disaster and death.”

Andrew Rudansky, a spokesperson for the Dept. of Buildings, said the agency does take the problem seriously.

“Property owners in New York City have a legal responsibility to provide safe, habitable conditions for their tenants. The potentially unsafe living conditions caused by illegal conversions can pose a serious fire safety risk to not only tenants, but neighbors and first responders as well. That is why we work closely with elected officials and our agency partners to investigate and rout out these dangerous living spaces,” Rudansky told the Eagle.

Residents can report suspected illegal home conversions by calling 311.

The DOB responds to all 311 complaints, officials said.

In addition, the agency has a Quality of Life Unit dedicated solely to investigating illegal conversion complaints citywide. The agency also conducts regular inter-agency inspections with the Fire Department to investigate illegal conversion complaints in Southern Brooklyn, officials said.

In the last 12 months, the Quality of Life Unit has conducted more than 20,000 field inspections at 10,000 separate locations across the five boroughs.

In addition, the DOB has convened an illegal conversion task force with local elected officials to handle direct referrals for suspected illegal conversions.

DOB conducts significant outreach to the community on the issue of illegal conversions, including the Living Safely Campaign, through which DOB and FDNY outreach staff canvass transit hubs to inform members of the public about the dangers of illegal conversions.

But the agency’s hands are tied to a certain extent, according to officials, who said inspectors cannot force their way into private property without a court access warrant, even if the site is suspected of being an illegal home conversion.

Officials also pointed out that Americans are protected under the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable search and seizure.