Southwest Brooklyn residents from Bath Beach to Sunset Park stormed a town hall meeting on Thursday, February 26 at their wits’ end over what Dyker Heights resident, parent and local arts teacher Jeanine Bardo referred to as “the new normal” – a lifestyle rife with illegal home conversions.
While Department of Buildings rep Tim Hogan promised an increase in Brooklyn inspectors by July, panelists and residents agreed that city agencies have done little to nothing to address the ripple effect these home makeovers have had on a swathe of Southwest Brooklyn.
“[Our new normal consists of] house[s] being completely gutted without permits during off hours; all of the refuse being put into vans and illegally carted away in the middle of the night,” contended Bardo to a standing-room-only crowd in the basement of the Knights of Columbus at 13th Avenue and 86th Street, also spotlighting storefront sweatshops and homes-turned-businesses as “obvious” instances in which the laws on the books are being “flouted.”
“[These are] a symptom of the undercurrent of what is allowed to happen when illegal activity is ignored by the very institutions and laws that are supposed to protect its citizens,” said Bardo, asking the DOB to “simply do [its] job” and get to the bottom of an issue that has influenced at least five pieces of legislature in the last year alone.
Borough President Eric Adams, said Andrew Gounardes, who serves as his counsel, has proposed the newest legislation – working with Councilmembers Vincent Gentile and Jumaane Williams – that would take away the financial benefit of creating an illegal conversion in the first place.
Gounardes said the bill would create a new category, aggravated illegal conversion, that would enable the city to sell liens against such properties to a third party, who would have an incentive to collect on the debt. Besides going after the developers, the bill would also strive to protect tenants by dedicating the money raised from the sale of the liens to helping relocate residents who have been displaced from homes inside buildings that have been illegally converted.
“This is a very, very strong comprehensive approach to stop these conversions from happening in the first place,” Gounardes stressed.
That is key, according to organizers. “If we do not stop the illegal conversions, we will become a community of one-room apartment dwellers,” said Bob Cassara, co-founder of the Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance and co-sponsor of the town hall meeting alongside Dyker Heights Civic Association president and moderator Fran Vella-Marrone. “The problem is not a new one but rather one that has existed for over 30 years and this issue has not been effectively dealt with. It is now time for change.”
That issue, everyone present contended, puts tenants, neighbors and first responders at risk.
“The greatest frustration that I face each day handling complaints is the blatant disregard of the zoning resolution, the building code and the multiple dwelling law,” said Community Board 10 District Manager Josephine Beckmann. “These statutes are designed to protect the life and safety of residents, tenants and first responders. If the city of New York, the Buildings Department and other enforcement agencies do not have the enforcement tools and the ability to enforce the rule of the law, those protections are just not in place.”
Panelists seized the opportunity to ask Hogan exactly what the DOB is doing to combat the issue, squaring in on everything from complaint response time (an average of 35 days for regular complaints and 22 days for prioritized complaints) to the agency’s track record of not being able to get into reported properties.
With repeat offenders catching on to what’s tipping outsiders off, Hogan said the agency has been participating in everything from undercover stings to targeted sweeps (some of which take as many as six to eight weeks).
“Everybody thinks that it’s very simple for us to get into some of these properties,” the rep said, emphasizing that – by law – an access warrant does not allow the DOB access to a property if the tenant refuses entry. “It gives us no right to break and enter into the premises.”
Still, with local schools like P.S. 176 (a District 20 school at 175 percent capacity) spilling over from overcrowding, Vella-Marrone said simply, more has to be done.
“We have a list here of all the problem areas,” she said. “So, if you want to start some sweeps you can start with these.”
Additionally, Vella-Marrone expressed frustration over an outstanding $640 million in uncollected fines, $100 million of which was simply written off by the city.
“What are we doing with that money?” she asked. “We could be using that money for enforcement.”
State Senator Marty Golden brought the meeting to a close expressing the need not just for a citywide task force but, in addition, a localized task force “with teeth.”
“The only way the task force has teeth is with legislation,” Golden said, stressing that, once in place, the task force must then pinpoint a “trigger” – be it the electric company, cable companies or even the post office – that would help bring illegal multi-family dwellings existing in the shadows into the light, and bring the developers getting rich on them to justice.