Letter to the Editor: Stopping the Illegal Home Conversions – Who’s Really Doing The Work

Letter to the Editor: Stopping the Illegal Home Conversions – Who’s Really Doing The Work

By Bob Cassara, President of the Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance @brooklynhpa

As President of the Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance (BHPA) I am gratified to see elected officials put their efforts and resources behind a very difficult if not impossible task in trying to stop the illegal home conversion epidemic that is taking place in our community. The community applauds the efforts of the group composed of Councilmember Justin Brannan, U.S. Rep Max Rose, State Sen. Andrew Gounardes and Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus for recognizing the problem and working towards a solution. We are willing to do what is necessary to work with them in this effort. That being said, I do not believe the whole story is being told to the public.

Prior to 2014, no one talked about the illegal home conversions that were taking place in Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights. Certainly, none of our local politicians were talking about it. When I was a member of Community Board 10, there were some brief discussions about it but it was never a very high priority. People said that the Department of Buildings could not get in to inspect because the “tenants” would not allow them in to inspect buildings. It is our constitutional right to privacy that prevents the authorities from entering private premises without being invited. This was and still is the excuse/reason given for not being able to investigate illegal home conversions. In reality, there was no real effort to do anything other than talk.

In 2014 two buildings on my block were sold to investors and quickly taken apart inside, down to the brick walls, and the basements of both were excavated. What caught my attention was the numerous dumpsters filled with soil and debris taken out of each building. One building had over 14 (20-yard) containers of materials hauled away and had many deliveries of supplies, consisting of 20-foot steel beams, plaster boards, tile, cement, etc.

These home conversions led to the formation of the Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance in an effort to understand what was happening and what next steps should be taken in order to stop the spread of these conversions throughout our community and ultimately, throughout the rest of the borough of Brooklyn. Thus, the BHPA began to inform the community of this problem and to try to stop the spread of illegal home conversions. We spent our spare/free time getting the word out by attending street fairs, events, and meetings with many of our local and not so local political leaders, both Democrat and Republican.

It should be noted that most efforts like this will never come directly from a politician. Most of the time they lead from behind and do not have the courage to take on a battle like this for fear it will impact their favor with the voters. It was not until the BHPA, a grassroots organization, held a Town Hall Meeting in February 2015 on a bitterly cold night that hundreds of people came out and rallied in support of our campaign and that is when some of the electeds got behind our effort. It was this Town Hall event that convinced our then State Senator, Marty Golden, along with his chief of staff to reach out and demand a Task Force be formed from many city agencies, which included, the Department of Buildings, Department of Housing & Development, Fire Department, Mayor’s Office, etc. Thus, the Illegal Home Conversion Task Force was formed and co-chaired by Fran Vella- Marrone and myself, Bob Cassara. We held numerous meetings and this resulted in what you now see and hear of as an Agency Task Force that is dedicated to getting into illegally converted houses to stop this illicit behavior. It has been fairly successful with the number of accesses more than doubling and tripling over the period from 2014 through 2018. When you read about houses being accessed by the DOB/FDNY and successful attempts in exposing the illegal home conversions, it is a direct result of this joint effort.

After seeing the groundswell of interest in this issue, our former local Councilman, Vincent Gentile, drafted legislation in an attempt to halt the illegal home conversion process. It took several years before the legislation was passed, but has it been effective? While waiting for the legislation to be passed, Senator Golden’s pressure on City Hall made most, if not all of the enforcement, take place. Now that Marty Golden is no longer our State Senator, who will pressure the Mayor and his agencies to perform their job?

In the Spring of 2018, Fran Vella-Marrone and CB10 District Manager Josephine Beckmann and I made a trip to Ridgewood Queens, specifically to meet with Councilman Robert Holden to discuss the task force that we created and how it was working to our community’s advantage. He listened to what we had to say and he was “woke” to the facts, so much so, that he was well prepared for the barrage of questions, asked at meeting that very evening by his constituents about illegal home conversions occurring in his council district. I believe that this is the genesis of the bill authored by Councilman Robert Holden and co-sponsored by Councilman Justin Brannan now before the City Council to create the Agency Task Force.

Councilman Brannan claims in his current newsletter that the most important item is the safety of the residents of these illegally converted houses and the Firefighters. While this is true and the rights of tenants are important, there are problems that stem from the illegal home conversions that affect all members of our community as well as the entire City of New York.

These problems include:

  • Schools at 175% capacity;
  • Residents living in substandard conditions;
  • Lack of affordable rental housing;
  • A drain on police and fire and city infrastructure such as sanitation, mass transit, hospitals, energy supply, water and sewer;
  • Artificially inflated property values which in turn increases our property taxes.

Why would any self-respecting taxpayer that has options want to live in a high taxed city where this is going on? The answer is, they don’t. They are voting with their feet and leaving in the thousands, taking millions of dollars with them. Money that should be spent here is instead going to the sunbelt, tax-free states.

We at the Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance look forward to working with all of our elected officials in an effort to fix the problem of illegal home conversions but please give credit where credit is due. The government does not have all the answers, but certainly has the tools at their disposal to make things happen. A well-informed community in conjunction with a cooperating partner in government will make a difference.

Signed by:

Bob Cassara, President Brooklyn HPA

Fran Vella-Marrone, Vice President Brooklyn HPA

John Frenna, Brooklyn HPA

Anthony Cerritte, Brooklyn HPA

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