CB 7 hosts forum on illegally converted apartments

Due to the increased number of illegally converted apartments popping up around Sunset Park, Community Board 7 held a forum on the dangerous issue at its offices on Monday, March 4.

Representatives from the Department of Buildings, Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the Fifth Avenue Committee, Neighbors Helping Neighbors and the Mayor’s Illegal Occupancy Task Force were on hand to answer questions from concerned residents.

Michael Flowers of the Mayor’s Illegal Occupancy Task Force explained that illegal apartments can be reported by calling 3-1-1. But when inspectors arrive at problem locations, they are not always let in.

“What we found is when a DOB inspector is paired with a firefighter, the rate we get in is 75 percent higher than without. However, we need the Fire Department available for fires,” Flowers explained. “We pick those locations that have the highest safety risks from a citizen’s standpoint.”

Flowers said that when inspectors are refused entry to a residence in question, a warrant process begins. “But you must provide enough evidence,” he said, adding that multiple doorbells or too many cars in the driveway are signs of illegal conversions.

“We make at least two attempts for every complaint that comes in,” said DOB rep Michael Nussbaum.

Nelson Padilla has been living on 59th Street with his family for over 20 years. Although he did not attend the meeting, he told this paper that illegally converted apartments are a problem on his block.

“Sometimes there are 30 people living in a two-family house. If you look up, you will see double beds in the window. Sometimes you have a family of husband, wife and kid in one room. They share the living room and kitchen [with other families] because it’s in the middle,” he explained.

Padilla added that the crammed apartments are also overcrowding schools and making more garbage. “It’s crazy. There are so many people living in those houses,” he said.

Jackie del Valle of the Fifth Avenue Committee and Neighbors Helping Neighbors, contended, “A lot of this is being done by unscrupulous landlords who are putting profit before safety. Often, the owner is in financial trouble and it may have to do with the availability of resources.”

Fred Xuereb, chair of Community Board 7, said that on his block, 85 percent of the houses are illegal conversions. “There have been landlords who buy a house in the area, but don’t go through the normal banks we go through. They go through the Hong Kong banks,” he said. “I want you to understand that I have questioned the banks. They gut out the house, have it inspected and then three to four months later, they do the conversion.”

Maria Roca, president of Friends of Sunset Park, said that she knows of places where beds are being rented out in 12-hour shifts. “My heart goes out to those people coming here looking for a better life,” she said, adding that this issue is prevalent due to the lack of affordable housing citywide. “They are the ones that end up burned and dead.”

Bob HuDock, a local community activist and architect, agreed. “There is a deplorable lack of affordable housing in the city and architectural professionals are aware of this issue,” he said. “These folks are living in squalor. These are our neighbors. These people are part of our economy. It’s not something that happens in poor neighborhoods, it’s across the entire city.”

For more information visit http://www.nyc.gov/html/dob/downloads/pdf/illegal_conversion_factsheet.pdf.

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