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Photo courtesy of City Councilmember Vincent Gentile
Photo courtesy of City Councilmember Vincent Gentile
Councilmember Vincent Gentile announces and celebrates the City Council's passage of a bill that would help curb illegal conversions.

On Wednesday, May 10, a bevy of local lawmakers gathered at the steps of City Hall to announce that the City Council had voted unanimously for legislation that will increase penalties for illegally converted homes and hopefully curb the issue as a whole.

The bill, Intro 1218-A, also known as the Aggravated Illegal Conversion Bill, raises the stakes for those who allow three or more illegal dwelling units to be created within one structure due to the dangers it causes to tenants — an issue that has run rampant in neighborhoods like Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst and beyond. The bill passed 49-0.

“Substandard housing is not affordable housing,” said Councilmember Vincent Gentile. who introduced the bill into the council in June of last year. “Seeking to maximize profit at the expense of tenant safety will no longer be permissible by the City of New York once this bill is signed into law. Few neighborhoods are immune from the dangers to life and property that illegally partitioning homes poses. By removing the profit motive from unscrupulous owners, this bill will help protect tenants from imminently life-threatening conditions, increase the safety of first responders in emergency situations, safeguard our overburdened infrastructure systems, and maintain the quality of life in our communities.”

The bill creates a hefty $15,000 fine for each individual unit that is three or more units above the Certificate of Occupancy. If the fine is unpaid for one year, the lien can be sold by the city. It will also institutionalize the process of obtaining an access warrant to an alleged aggravated illegal subdivision — something that, before this bill, often proved difficult for authorities as landlords and homeowners contentiously shut out responding agents. Under the new bill, after two unsuccessful attempts to gain access, the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) will then request the Law Department apply for an access warrant, allowing for a much smoother entry process.

The issue has been ongoing for years in southern Brooklyn. This past January, a Dyker Heights home was issued a full vacate order after DOB officials found that it had been illegally converted from a two-family home to an eight-family home, housing just over two dozen people at 1178 65th Street .

President of the Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance Bob Cassara discussed his satisfaction with the decision. “It is the start to reversing a problem that has plagued our city over 30 years,” he said, “I think we should congratulate our Councilman and all our political and community leaders for their perseverance to get the job done.”

“Today, we take a positive step toward advancing safer communities to raise healthy children and families,” added Borough President Eric Adams, who assisted Gentile on his efforts. “Today, we respond to the countless tragedies that have senselessly claimed lives due to critically substandard housing conditions. Today, we address the challenge of aggravated illegally converted homes with common sense, bipartisan legislation that prioritizes the health and safety of at-risk tenants and neighbors.”

Congressmember Dan Donovan also weighed in on the decision. “Illegal conversions pose a serious danger to tenants and the surrounding community, including neighbors and first-responders that face unnecessary risks from health and safety hazards,” he said.

According to the Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance, of the 448 illegally converted homes reported in Community Board 10 in 2015, the DOB was able to access 246 homes, a 25 percent increase from 2014. Where the DOB got access, 35.6 percent of the homes were issued code violations; an increase from 19.7 percent in 2014. Overall, since 2014, there has been a 300 percent increase in vacate orders for the two neighborhoods.

“As a community, we’ve all witnessed the terrible tragedies that have resulted from illegally converted buildings, as well as the negative impact on residents, businesses, and first responders,” stressed Assemblymember Pamela Harris. “The best way to prevent the development of these dangerous structures is to impose tougher penalties on those that create them.

“In the City Council, we’ve established new standards and penalties to help stop the exploitation of tenants,” added Councilmember Carlos Menchaca. “Our new, consolidated aggravated illegal conversion violation creates better tools for building safety enforcement and higher fines that can lead to the seizure of buildings.”

“All in all, Intro 1218-A will serve as strong deterrents on the front end and, if needed, strong enforcement tools on the back end to combat the proliferation of aggravated illegal residential conversions,” said Gentile.

Additional reporting by Meaghan McGoldrick

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