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.
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.”
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.)
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.”
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.