Shining a spotlight onto illegal conversions

An assemblage of local politicians, civic leaders and neighborhood residents came out in the rain on Tuesday, November 10 to discuss the issue of illegal home conversions – all from the outside of a potential one.

“The issue of illegal home conversion is a hot topic,” said Councilmember Vincent Gentile – who organized the presser – outside 941 78th Street, a two-family semi-attached residence neighbors allege is being converted into a multi-family dwelling.

The home was issued a complete stop work order (SWO) by the Department of Buildings (DOB) after several complaints were made. The SWO cited an illegal excavation, illegal electrical work and a lack of permit for a dumpster.

“Unfortunately, as we all know too well, this building is not alone in our neighborhood,” said Gentile, citing also 267 94th Street—a dwelling that, with a permit that only allowed for an interior renovation of the first floor and cellar, underwent what appears to be a full demolition.

Though illegal home conversion can take many forms (such as SROs or illegal hotels), Gentile said, it is the type of conversion seen at 941 78th Street and 267 94th Street that costs the community the most.

“It’s the [homes with] subdivided units that seek to house the maximum number of people in the least amount of space,” Gentile explained. “In this kind of illegal conversion, people stay. Unlike the illegal hotels, they don’t just pass through.”

When those residents stay, Gentile urged, they not only endanger the lives of first responders but they also overload local sewers, water mains and even the New York City school system.

“The offspring of the residents of these illegal conversions have to go to school somewhere, so they contribute greatly to the overcrowding at our local schools,” the pol said, “thereby reducing the quality of education for all students in our nabe.”

“We can’t make our children over-the-counter children by adding more kids into a school system [that is already crowded],” agreed Assemblymember-elect Pam Harris, stressing also the issue of building on top of already antiquated infrastructure.

“A Dyker Heights elementary school is built for 376 kids. They have over 540,” stressed John Quaglione, representing State Senator Marty Golden. “They have no gym, they have no art room, they have four lunch periods—lunch starts at 10 a.m. That’s happening in every school here in the neighborhood, and the overcrowding and illegal conversions are causing that.”

“This is a real problem, not only in Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights, but it’s growing throughout the city,” noted Assemblymember Peter Abbate. “The important thing is the safety of the people who are going to move into these buildings and the safety of the people next door. Most of the houses in Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and Bensonhurst are either attached or semi-attached.”

These concerns—each speaker urged—are why the city needs to band together in support of legislature (both current and future) to deter property owners from attempting illegal home conversions.

One of three bills Gentile is steering would allow DOB to issue summonses based on external evidence such as three electric meters outside a two-family home, or an excessive amount of doorbells on a property.

“We put people in jail based on circumstantial evidence,” he said. “We should be able to allege an illegal conversion based on circumstantial evidence.”

The second bill, he said, would revoke, suspend or condition the ability of architects and engineers to certify their own plans, while the third would create a class one immediately hazardous violation called Aggravated Illegal Conversion. That violation would result in a $15,000 fine, and work to get residents out of those homes.

In addition, attendees said, local residents need to say something if they see something.

“You live in a community because you like what’s here,” said Bob Cassara, longtime local resident and organizer of the Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance, “and that’s why we have everyone organized around this…That’s the only way we’re going to attack this problem.”

“We have to draw a line in the sand and say stop; no more,” contended Fran Vella-Marrone, president of the Dyker Heights Civic Association and representative to Congressmember Dan Donovan. “Substandard housing should not be affordable housing.”

“If we do not tackle this problem and get a hold of this, it will not be sustainable,” said Community Board 10 District Manager Josephine Beckmann.

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