Anger And Frustration Erupt At Illegal Home Conversions Town Hall

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Emotions ran high at February 26’s town hall meeting on illegal home conversions, a growing crisis in Bensonhurst, Bath Beach, Dyker Heights, and Bay Ridge.

The basement of Knights of Columbus (1305 86th Street) was packed with hundreds of locals frustrated by the city’s lack of response to complaints about illegally converted homes.

The town hall was hosted by Bob Cassara, founder of the Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance, and Fran Vella-Marrone of the Dyker Heights Civic Association, who came prepared with a list of questions for local politicians and housing officials.

Community Board (CB) leaders opened the event with observations from their neighborhoods.

“The greatest frustration that I face each day, handling complaints, is the blatant disregard of the zoning resolution, the building code, and the multiple-dwelling law. These statutes are designed to protect the lives and safety of tenants and first responders. The Buildings department should be able to expeditiously respond to these complaints, but that’s not happening,” said Josephine Beckmann, of CB 10. “What we are asking is simple: use the laws in place to do your job.”

“I believe that if we targeted five egregious properties, we would be sending a message that this will not be tolerated,” agreed Marnee Elias-Pavia, district manager for CB 11.

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Neighbors complained about one-family and two-family homes that are unlawfully subdivided into multiple units, resulting in fire code violations and putting a strain on local resources like public schools and the Sanitation Department. Locals say they call 311 when they see homes on their blocks being gutted and transformed, but city agencies don’t respond until months later, and by that time the construction is complete.

In the hot seat was Tim Hogan, the deputy commissioner for enforcement at the Department of Buildings (DOB), who fielded questions from Vella-Marrone, and explained some of the strategies and challenges encountered by city agencies in trying to curb illegal conversions.

Hogan said the DOB has increased the number of inspectors specially trained to recognize illegal conversions in Brooklyn, using methods like targeted sweeps, scouring apartment listings, and in extreme cases, long-term surveillance to crack down on violations.

However, the problem with 311 complaints, Hogan said, is that they are required to be visible to the public, which tips off property owners, who then warn tenants that if they allow the DOB into the building they will be evicted. The only way agents can break into a building is when there is evidence that tenants are in immediate danger.

“I cannot stress enough that the issuance of a vacate order does not give us the right to break and enter into an apartment,” Hogan said. “The U.S. Constitution says people have a right to privacy and we cannot break down and enter their door.”

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The city has also started using big data to register and track each complaint. In 2014 alone, the DOB received over 100,000 housing-related complaints, with more than 26,000 of them related to illegal home conversions, and 1,100 related to illegal hotels, according to city data crunched by the Brooklyn Paper. Hogan estimated that a 311 complaint is handled within an average of 35 days.

“Who here has called 311 about a housing issue and never gotten a resolution?” asked Vella-Marrone. Hands shot up across the room, accompanied by grumbles from the audience.

The DOB has had some success at fining landlords up to $600 per tenant for unlawful construction. But as Vella-Marrone pointed out that as of October 14, the city has more than $600 million in outstanding building-related fines.

“Why not go after these fines and use the money for enforcement?” she asked. (Answer: fines are are handled by the city’s Department of Finance.)

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Vella-Marrone did not open the floor to audience members, citing time constraints, but that did not stop the event from being dominated by angry outbursts.

One attendee drew a rhetorical line from illegal conversions to an increased presence of massage parlors, sweatshops, signs of human trafficking, and trash. Some hoist those problems on the neighborhood’s growing Asian-American population, and there was an awkward moment when one person made a comment briefly bringing such tension to the forefront.

“I don’t feel comfortable with an Asian in the room, I have to admit,” shouted one attendee from the crowd.

The room fell silent and Vella-Marrone quickly responded, “No! Don’t do that.”

Housing officials also addressed some of the distrust the community has with DOB when one man demanded, “How many inspectors have gotten arrested in the last two months?” referring to the massive bribery scheme which resulted in 55 arrests, including five housing officials last month.

“It’s not something we are very proud of, but we identified the problem and brought it to the inspectors. And everything that they did, we undid,” said Vito Mustaciuolo, the city’s deputy commissioner for code enforcement. “It doesn’t represent who this agency is. They were motivated by greed.”

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The event concluded with encouraging statements from local elected officials, including State Senator Marty Golden, who spoke about his proposed legislation to increase the penalties for property owners that build without permits, and Councilman Carlos Menchaca, whose district includes Sunset Park, which has long been dealing with illegal conversions. Menchaca stressed unity between Sunset Park and Southwest Brooklyn in tackling the issue.

“You are not crazy to to be frustrated. You are not crazy that your schools are overcrowded…. Illegal conversions are huge in Sunset Park. I’m asking you to lend a hand to Sunset Park, and united, we will get there,” Menchaca said.

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Comments

  1. nothing will change. its a giant circle jerk. until excessive fines (similar to workers’ comp penalties) are levied, nothing will change.

  2. It’s just a bunch of angry Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans mad that the neighborhood is being “infested” with “immigrant roaches.” Don’t tell me it’s not true. At least sister kept it real “I’m not comfortable with an Asian in the room”…because what you all really wanted to say was “ching chong ho yong wonton.” Listen, if you want to solve the problem just organize your neighbors and neighborhoods to stop selling their single family and/or double family homes to the Chinese…oh wait, but your neighbors see $$$$$$$$$$$$. Who doesn’t like an all cash deal?

  3. You seem to be missing the point! It’s the very people that DO NOT see the $$$ that are complaining. It’s not the people that are selling and fleeing at that meeting.
    And the irony about YOUR obvious bigotry about Italians and Irish doesn’t escape us. Illegally converted homes do impact a community in many ways beyond just “a lot of people living in a small space”. It goes beyond the house itself onto the community: schools, public services, etc.
    Don’t be as close-minded as those “angry” people you cited in your comment above and TRY to see that it IS indeed a problem.

  4. I am Asian-American. I bought a one family home in Elmhurst 30 years ago when there were only a few Asians. There was no Asian supermarket and I used to shop in Chinatown. Then the Asian population exploded. I sold my house in 2005 to a Philipino couple with 2 kids. I happened to go there one day and saw 3 vans in the driveway. There was an AC mounted on the window in the arctic.

  5. This is a response to people about illegal conversion affecting school, public service, etc.

    1.) There is crowded schools everywhere in NYC. The government gets huge funding from the lottery for education. Where is all this money? Don’t blame crowded schools on illegal conversion.

    2.) Everyone pays tax dollars for sanitation to pick up our trash. Do we have a limit on how much trash we accumlate and throw out on a weekly basis?

    3.) Even though there are illegal conversion I can bet any money there are less or close to no 9-11 and fire calls from these homes They don’t really strand/bother the police or fire department more or less than anyone else in the neighborhood.

    People are not mad at illegal conversion they are mad that “their” neighbrhood is changing.

    I will make sure and spread the word not to vote for these people because there are bigger issues in this world and communities than illegal conversion:

    State Senator Marty Golden
    Josephine Beckman
    Marnee Elias-Pavia

  6. Really you need to think a little more. Straining any of the public works does not help a community. Sure there are other factors as well that contribute to what you stated above, but the facts remain: a neighborhood built to hold, let’s say, 100,000 people, will struggle when there are double the amount (to use a loose “basic” example).
    First and foremost, illegal conversions are AGAINST THE LAW! Permits are ignored, building is shoddy, and proper emergency considerations are ignored. So what? Do you want repeated tragedies to happen for proof?! How does that make sense?
    And regardless of whether the government is hoarding money meant for public schools, the fact remains, there isn’t enough space to accommodate all the “extra” kids entering these schools! If a school is built to hold, let’s say 2000 kids, it’s going to struggle with 3000 kids.
    I’m not saying “keep these people out” by any means, however they have to do things legally, and landlords as well. Why is that too much to ask?

  7. Illegal conversion is bad and against the law. totally agree. But community should be educated more and correctly to spot the bad guys from the good. Dont use the topic of fighting illegal conversion which is good to fight off new lawful new owners or unwanted neighbors you dont feel comfortable being in a room or street with which is bad. You cant get your favorite neighbors back if they sold the house. In dyker legally your are allow to turn those 1 family to 2 family. in sunset you can even turn them into 3 4 5 or more family. The average joe should be inform of this. Plus you are legally allow to put more rooms in these houses. family with grandparent, parent and 2 kids do need five rooms and 2 baths….. imagine the morning rush if you only have 1 bathroom…old timers should be more understanding and accept changes and see things on the bright side. Its 2015. 1975 is just a good memory now. Also i notice there are more houses for sale in dyker right after the townhall meeting. Seems like the townhall meeting help to accelerate selling of property in this area. 75 houses for sale minus the for sale by owner. good job helping the rich realstate agent.

  8. Ummm. You DO realize that YOU are coming across as a biased individual by “assuming” all people fighting illegal conversions are really doing it to fight “new neighbors”. I’m a long time landlord in Bensonhurst, and MORE than welcome my new neighbors over the past 20 years. I have NO problem with them. But I DO have a problem with anyone (Chinese, Italian, whatever) that illegally convert a house or apartment!
    “ILLEGAL CONVERSIONS” BEING FOUGHT AGAINST HERE ARE NOT THE “ONE TO TWO” FAMILY CONVERSIONS AS YOU SAY!
    We are talking about the apartments being converted to two, three even four sub-divisions (like along 86 street).
    You are making a ton of assumptions about what the true reasons for fighting this problem are.
    That, my friend, makes you just as much of a bigot or biased person as those you are trying to blame with no proof.
    And if you truly cannot see the simple FACTS of how illegal conversions on an alarming scale strain a community, that’s a laugh riot.
    Here’s another simple example: the neighborhood was planned decades ago with the thought in mind that every family would have ONE car, so parking, garages, etc were planned as such.
    NOW look at the parking problems alone in the area! Most families have multiple cars, which leads to strains on parking. Get it?
    Maybe YOU should be educated more to spot the “bad guys from the good” who are trying to keep people from doing something ILLEGAL.

  9. Quite frankly, I find the illegal conversion as nothing different than condos being built right next to each other. You have a concentrated number of people in a small place. When I was shoveling yesterday, I saw my neighbor who lives in one of the condos on my block circle the block at least 5 times. That’s the same result if that condo was an illegal conversion. There’s also a new condo building on my block that used to be a one family house. Now there’s 8 condos in that same spot. What’s the difference between that and an illegal conversion? Oh right, the property taxes and “safety”. People don’t complain about crowding in schools when condos are being erected left and right. But a two story one family house being use as a two family house. Oh no, that’s the most terrible thing. But a one family house now being used as 8 family condo? That’s fine. I suppose I understand too because I’m an Asian American who grew up in a primarily Italian American neighborhood. But 95% of them have sold their homes and left the neighborhood. It used to upset me how their beautiful homes would be destroyed in favor of condos. If the neighbors are upset in that area, then band together and stop selling their homes to certain groups of people. Do what they do in other neighborhoods all around Brooklyn. If they don’t have that sense of community then accept that their neighborhood is changing.

  10. Again totally agree that illegal conversion is really bad and i am against it as well cause it does hurt the community…….A 1 family building use as illegal 2 family is the same as apartment being cut up illegally. So if someones renting out their basement to their cousin or let their son live in the basement is just as illegal ……….one way to fight this is the city need more inspection at night time when everyones home and inspector can see the light in the basement. Plus city have to raise the fine even more…..1, 2 family fine is in the hundreds and apartment fine are only in the thousands….city need to make penalty alot more…….. for parking issue. It was always an issue. I live in this area for years. Reason why theres not enough parking is. 1…most people now can afford more than one car. 2. Now most people have 2 and more cars. trouble moving cars out that narrow driveway. They dont park their cars in the drive way or garage. If people come home 6pm and plenty of street parking.. they just find a spot near their house and park on street while they have a driveway that can accommodate 3 cars plus the empty garage. The curb cut they own can accommodate 1 more….there are plenty of empty garages and driveways at night……

  11. “You are not crazy to to be frustrated. You are not crazy that your schools are overcrowded.”

    I am certainly not in support of illegal conversions, but something doesn’t fit. Are that many people really up in arms because of a few additional children in school?

  12. “I don’t feel comfortable with an Asian in the room, I have to admit,”
    People in this neighborhood are extremely ignorant. Please get out of Brooklyn and live a little. No one “owns” a neighborhood. I feel many living in these neighborhoods have this mentality. Italian and Irish immigrants were not the first here. Please get that stick out of your ass.

  13. I don’t believe this issue should be linked to, or blamed on, any particular ethnic group; there are good and bad people in any and all groups. That being said, the massage parlors and sweatshops, for the most part, ARE connected to specific groups. These establishments are not only violating DOB/FD regulations, but also criminal, labor and tax laws. The bottom line is, illegal home conversions do not meet DOB/FD Code requirements. The safety of ALL residents and the neighborhood is the best reason to address the issue so there is not another tragedy like the one on 86th Street a few years ago.

  14. Those illegally converted apartments on 2033 86th St. owned by the Gerazounis’? That fire was caused by a drunk guest of one of the tenants! Too many families living in the same place… then again, with Hispanic families, they tend to sneak in a few more guests than they should anyway! I used to rent to one couple (with one child) who brought their mother, their brother, and a son from another marriage and I was always told, “They’re just visiting!” for many months! Sometimes cousins and friends sleep over as well!

    Sweatshops- you can find Hispanic sweatshops and Asian sweatshops! Massage parlor- mostly Asians but there are some legit ones as well as lousy ones with “happy endings” offered! At least we’re not seeing Black, Hispanic, or Vietnamese gangs taking over! (yet!)

  15. Second, who cares??? Trying to act like the Grammar Police makes you seem like an idiot! Easy to point out someone’s ONE mistake in a paragraph but it makes you seem anal!

    I really don’t see the point of Pierre’s statement except that Filipinos tend to have large families occupying their houses!

  16. Honestly, when I saw the title of this article I thought of Asian homeowners who have a habit of converting 1- and 2-family homes to house ridiculous amounts of people. HOWEVER, that does not mean all Asian homeowners do it, and most do understand that it is illegal and would not bother to risk it. That applies to all non-Asians who I am aware have also illegally converted their homes…what I am trying to say is that there are honest and dishonest people everywhere, so if you try and say something ignorant to demonize and marginalize a certain group, you will only look foolish, just like the unnamed attendee. Have an open mind and do not pin an entire community’s problems on certain people. They might be partly responsible, but that most definitely does not mean they should take the brunt of the blame, when other people are involved. Engage in open dialogue and try to find solutions together, instead of looking for scapegoats.

  17. The people supporting this proposed legislation should be ashamed of themselves. They are simply ignorant bigots, and caused the problem themselves.

    The city needs MORE housing, not less. The only reason these conversions are happening is because the same NIMBYs complaining about the conversions downzoned all of Bay Ridge/Dyker/Bensonhurst over the last 10 years.

    And what happened? New waves of immigrants moved into the neighborhood, but now the areas are all downzoned (thanks to NIMBYs) so the existing housing is being subdivided into smaller units.

    The fact is that the people complaining about the problem are the ones who actually caused the problem. They downzoned the neighborhood, they don’t want the newcomers coming in, but people are going to arrive regardless. You need to either 1. Legalize the conversions, 2. Upzone the neighborhoods, or 3. Do both (probably the best solution). Anyone just complaining about new immigrants or conversions or “the neigborhood changing” is a fool and should be ashamed of their ignorance.

  18. Zoning and race aren’t the issue. It’s the use of non-code, and flammable, materials to construct walls. It’s the building of walls that do not appear on any plans that impede access to residents in emergencies by first responders. It’s the use of non-fire-resistant doors as the entrances to individual units. It’s the undermining of foundations (both the house being converted and neighboring adjoining houses) when non-residential basements are made deeper to accomodate an apartment. It’s non-code plumbing and electrical that the water supply and sewage isn’t capable of delivering or eliminating safely.

    All the rest – less parking, over-crowding in schools and transit are simply by-products of landlords who want to eke as many dollars out of a property without any consideration for the safety of their tenants or neighbors.

    The bottom line is, if you want to convert housing units to house more people, you have to do so safely and within the law. It makes no sense to object to laws that are underlain by very clear and proven safety considerations. Ask the people who died on 86th & 20th, or the firemen who have been killed or injured because they became stuck behind walls their equipment couldn’t break through.

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