City Council Proposes Bill To Combat Illegal Home Conversions

Courtesy of Councilman Vincent Gentile's Office
Courtesy of Councilman Vincent Gentile’s Office

Councilmembers Jumaane D. Williams and Vincent Gentile, along with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, rallied with members of the Dyker Heights community Monday afternoon, in support of City Council legislation they will introduce to increase the penalties for aggravated illegal conversions, which are defined as three or more illegal dwelling units being created within one structure, which threaten the safety of occupants and neighbors.

To prevent such incidents in the future, the proposed measure would establish a fine of at least $45,000 for aggravated illegal conversions — $15,000 for each unit — and expand the authority of the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) and the New York City Environmental Control Board (ECB) to inspect properties and impose fines and other penalties.

The bill, which is also sponsored by Councilman Barry S. Grodenchik, was developed after a November 2014 fire in an illegal unit above a Flatbush church killed an individual and injured 16 others, destroying the building.

“Illegal home conversions are a high-risk symptom of the overall housing crisis we have in this City,” said Williams, chair of the Committee on Housing and Buildings.“ It is our responsibility as legislators to find these bad-acting landlords and thwart their illegal and very dangerous practices. It is also our responsibility to offer a realistic, affordable housing alternative to the residents. Illegal conversions are unsafe, as evidenced by the two major fires that took place in my district last year; they deteriorate the quality of life for residents and community members, and put a strain on local resources. All New Yorkers, regardless of race, socioeconomic or legal status, deserve a safe and quality place to call home.”

The aggravated illegal conversions bill provides that fines imposed by the ECB automatically create liens that, if unpaid, could be included in a lien sale, and adds aggravated illegal conversions to the list of offenses for which a vacate order could be issued due to immediately hazardous conditions. Additionally, if inspectors from the DOB fail to enter the premises after several attempts, this bill creates a procedure for the DOB to request a warrant for entry from the Corporation Counsel (Law Department).

“These strong restrictions and penalties will force egregious property owners to comply with New York City’s building code,” said Gentile. “Substandard housing is not affordable housing. New York City may be called the ‘Big Apple’ but today we declare that we will not tolerate ‘Bad Apples’ who put the lives of low-income working families, immigrants, and the quality of our neighborhoods’ infrastructure and residential character at risk.”

Brooklyn Community District 10, which includes Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, and Fort Hamilton, has received more than 400 illegal conversion complaints in the past year, including a two-family home suspected of being converted to a six-family home. In Ditmas Park, there is a property owner suspected of illegal conversion on Ditmas Avenue, and the case is currently under DOB investigation.

The results of these illegal conversions are sometimes deadly. Last year, the landlord of an illegally split Bath Beach home pled guilty to negligent homicide after a fire killed five Guatemalan immigrants and severely injured a baby girl — in part, because firefighters could not easily break through the maze of subdivided apartments.

“As we have learned from tragedy after tragedy, illegally converted homes present a serious threat to the health and safety of the families living there as well as to the entire surrounding neighborhood,” said Borough President Adams. “Fire escapes and other safety features we expect to have in our homes, which are required by law, are often absent in illegally converted housing units, and overcrowding has overwhelmed the capacity of communities such as Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights on fundamental quality-of-life matters.”

The anti-illegal conversion bill already has wide bipartisan support from southern Brooklyn elected officials — many of whom showed up to yesterday’s press conference — including Congressman Daniel Donovan, Assemblywoman Pamela Harris, Assemblyman Peter Abbate, Senator Marty Golden, and Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis.

Additionally, Gentile has sponsored two other illegal conversion bills, introduced in 2014, and he has urged the Committee on Housing and Buildings to consider these bills as a package with the new aggravated illegal conversions measure:

  • Intro 393 would allow DOB to issue summonses and notices of violation based on externally observable circumstantial evidence of an illegal conversion, such as an excess of mailboxes, utility meters of the same kind, or doorbells on a building for the lawful number of dwelling spaces within that building.
  • Intro 439 would attack the problem before construction commences by revoking, suspending, or conditioning the self-certification privileges of architects and engineers whose faulty applications for permits have resulted in the issuance of a stop work order; in addition, it would require that notifications bearing information on the individuals who have been affected by such sanctions be distributed to the City Council.
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