Brooklyn, Queens pols introduce new bill to combat illegal conversions

Substandard housing is not affordable housing.

That was the message at a Monday, June 20 press conference held by local politicians in anticipation of new legislation – introduced within the City Council on Tuesday – aimed at combating the growing number of illegal conversions plaguing neighborhoods like Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and Bensonhurst, as well as others citywide.

The bill – LS 4115 – was introduced on Tuesday, June 21 by Councilmember Vincent Gentile, and was co-sponsored by Chair of the Committee on Housing and Buildings (and Flatbush Councilmember) Jumaane Williams, as well as Queens Councilmember Barry Grodenchik. The legislation – which would establish a brand new type of violation titled “Aggravated Illegal Conversion” – also has strong support from Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, and colleagues in both the State Senate and the Assembly.

Basically, the legislation would establish a fine of at least $45,000 for aggravated illegal conversions (defined as three or more illegal dwelling units being created within one structure) – $15,000 for each unit – and expand the authority of the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) and the New York City Environmental Control Board (ECB) to inspect properties and impose fines. Specifically, it would allow inspectors from the DOB unable to gain entry to request a warrant to grant access to a building that shows signs of illegal conversions.

Lastly, the aggravated illegal conversions bill would require that fines imposed by the ECB automatically create liens that, if unpaid, could be included in a lien sale (and an ultimate loss of property for “bad actor” landlords), and adds “aggravated illegal conversion” to a list of offenses for which a vacate order could legally be issued.

The bill was first conceived after a November, 2014 house fire in an illegal unit above a Flatbush church in Williams’ district that destroyed the building, injured 16 people and killed one.

“Fifteen months ago, Borough President Adams, Councilmember Williams and I united in front of a destroyed building on Flatlands Avenue in Brooklyn and proclaimed combat against the proliferation of illegal conversions,” contested Gentile at the presser, hosted outside of 928 Bay Ridge Parkway – just one of many suspected illegal conversions in the area.

“Substandard housing is not affordable housing,” the local pol went on. “New York City may be called the ‘Big Apple’ but today we declare that we will not tolerate ‘Bad Apples’ who put the lives of low-income working families, immigrants and the quality of our neighborhoods’ infrastructure and residential character at risk.”

“As we have learned from tragedy after tragedy, illegally converted homes present a serious threat to the health and safety of the families living there as well as to the entire surrounding neighborhood,” added Adams. “Fire escapes and other safety features we expect to have in our homes, which are required by law, are often absent in illegally converted housing units, and overcrowding has overwhelmed the capacity of communities such as Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights on fundamental quality-of-life matters.”

Williams stressed that, as well as being unsafe, illegal conversions can completely deplete a community’s resources (like public transportation, utilities and even space in already overcrowded schools).

“Illegal home conversions are a high-risk symptom of the overall housing crisis we have in this city,” said Williams. “It is our responsibility as legislators to find these bad-acting landlords and thwart their illegal and very dangerous practices. It is also our responsibility to offer a realistic, affordable housing alternative to the residents.”

Electeds on both sides of the aisle agreed.

“Brooklyn residents deserve better,” said Congressmember Dan Donovan, who – alongside Assemblymembers Pamela Harris and William Colton, as well as representatives for State Senator Marty Golden and Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis  – stood with Gentile and Williams to show their support.

In addition, local advocates like Dyker Heights Civic Association President Fran Vella-Marrone, Community Board 10 District Manager Josephine Beckmann and President of the Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance Bob Cassara were on hand to speak out against illegal conversions.

According to Cassara, 448 illegal home conversions were reported in Community Board 10 (encompassing Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and Fort Hamilton) for 2015. Of those, he said, DOB was able to access 246 of them – a 25 percent increase over the amount the agency was able to access in 2014.

This progress, paired with the new legislation, has him hopeful.

“With this bill that the Council is introducing, this is really going to have some teeth,” he said. “This is going to help us a lot.”

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