Councilman Vincent Gentile joined with Assemblyman Peter Abbate and newly elected Assemblywoman Pamela Harris in Dyker Heights last week to announce legislation in the works intended to crack down on illegal home conversions.
The bill, which has the support of Borough President Eric Adams, would immediately evict tenants in homes classified as an “aggravated illegal conversions,” or any building that includes three or more illegal units. Violators would be fined $15,000 for each illegal unit and the city would become responsible for finding suitable living accommodations for the tenants, according to the councilman.
“We are looking for an acceptable mechanism by which the money collected from the fines would somehow go to relocating persons ordered to vacate,” said Gentile.
The legislation was announced outside a home located at 941 78th Street, which had been issued a “Stop Work Order” by the Department of Buildings (DOB) after several complaints were made about illegal excavation and electrical work. Officials says poor wiring in these homes can cause a fire hazard, and the extra units put a burden on neighborhood’s resources like sewer lines, sanitation, schools, and emergency services.
“In this kind of illegal conversion, people stay, they crowd in, and in doing so break the building code, and endanger themselves and the quality of life for the whole neighborhood,” the councilman said.
Sometimes the consequences are 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.
Activist groups, like the Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance, headed by Bob Cassara, complain that the DOB has been largely unresponsive to the more than 100,000 housing-related complaints — more than 26,000 of them related to illegal home conversions — that were registered with the agency in 2014. While the DOB sometimes fines landlords up to $600 per tenant for unlawful construction, the agency struggles with enforcement. As of October, the city was owed more than $600 million in outstanding building-related fines.
There is something of a community divide on the illegal conversion issue. Many impacted by the proposed crack down and eviction are foreign-born senior citizen and day laborers, who rent the subdivided apartments for below-market rates. Advocates of these groups agree that housing safety is important, but say they are concerned that immigrant communities were not consulted in the drafting of the legislation.
“The day laborer community are the ones who are underpaid, and the stability is not enough for them to rent a full room,” said Ligia Guallpa, executive director of the Worker’s Justice Project, which runs the Bay Parkway Community Job Center. “It’s one of the biggest issues we hear. Yet the immigrant community is always left out of the conversation in terms of what are their needs are and how it will impact their situations.”
Warren Chan of the social service agency Asian Community United Society (ACUS) said the bill could potentially create a homelessness crisis for Asian seniors in the neighborhood. “The ultimate victims will be abandoned senior citizens, because these are the people that rent these small homes for lower rent. ” said Chan.
Even if the landlord fines are used to resettle these tenants, Chan says lack of affordable housing in the neighborhood will make it impossible for them to find places to live.”The $15,000 will probably last them for six to 12 months, because these seniors have to face skyrocketing rents, and there will be an extremely high demand on housing after the mass eviction,” he said.
A spokesperson for Gentile’s office said the bill — which is still in the administration stage as the councilman seeks approval from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office and city agencies — is not intended to displace people, but to ensure that they are living in safe conditions.
“The point of the bill is to punish unscrupulous landlords and take the people that are living in these substandard housing situations, and get them into safe living situations,” said Gentile’s legislative director Michael Bistreich. He added that the details of the bill are still being fine tuned.
Gentile is working two other related bills, including one that would allow the DOB to issue summonses based on external signs of an illegal conversion, like multiple mailboxes or doorbells. The second would revoke, suspend, or condition the ability of architects and engineers to certify their own plans if they submit faulty applications for permits more than once a year.