They may not agree on much else, but the Democrats and Republicans running to be the next councilmember in the 43rd Council District appear to be of one mind concerning illegal home conversions — they are deleterious to the quality of life of neighborhoods like Dyker Heights and Bay Ridge where they have been popping up, and they cannot be allowed to continue to proliferate.
At a town hall meeting/candidate forum sponsored by the Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance and the Dyker Heights Civic Association, held on the evening of Wednesday, September 6 at the Knights of Columbus, 13th Avenue and 86th Street, the eight candidates present slammed the phenomenon — which has been growing increasingly prevalent in recent years — and offered a variety of solutions aimed at curbing it.
Present at the meeting were all the Democratic candidates — Justin Brannan, Kevin Peter Carroll, Vincent Chirico, the Reverend Khader El-Yateem and Nancy Tong — and three of the four GOP candidates — Bob Capano, Liam McCabe and John Quaglione. Only Lucretia Regina-Potter, who is vying for the Republican nomination, was not at the forum.
Illegal home conversions occur when developers take one and two-family homes and transform them into SROs, with potentially dozens of people living in cramped spaces where rooms have been subdivided with partitions.
The resulting residences, which do not conform to either zoning regulations or certificates of occupancy, are potentially dangerous to the residents of the illegal conversions as well as to their neighbors and first responders, who — in case of emergency — may not be able to find their way through spaces that have been changed contrary to plans on file with the city. They also place undue burdens on local schools, water and sewer mains, public transportation, hospitals and on-street parking.
The number of illegal home conversion complaints within Community Board 10 (which includes Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights) has skyrocketed in recent years, going from 228 in 2010 to 559 last year. As of August 1, 301 complaints had already been made in CB 10 in 2017.
So, how do the candidates suggest addressing the issue?
“Follow the money,” urged Brannan, who said that if you take the financial incentives away from the unscrupulous developers who create the illegal conversions, the problem will diminish. “The fines have to be prohibitive,” he asserted, suggesting as well that those who fund the illegal conversions be tracked down.
Brannan noted that he has already worked on the issue, as an aide to current Councilmember Vincent Gentile, whose aggravated illegal conversion bill was signed into law and will take effect at the end of this month.
Enforcement on the part of the Department of Buildings (DOB) needs to be stepped up, said Capano, who wished that, “The inspectors charges with enforcing the law had the same passion and zeal as traffic agents,” a comment that evoked laughter from the crowd.
“The priorities of this administration are screwed up,” he continued. “We can pass all the laws we want but unless the city is going to do the right thing, it’s not going to help.”
Capano also suggested looking into placing liens on other properties owned by the same landlords as a way of putting pressure on them.
Quaglione suggested “creating a special division within the DOB for illegal conversions,” and adding inspectors, as well as amending the building code to make bedrooms a minimum of nine feet wide instead of the current eight, to make it more difficult to cram additional rooms into an existing home.
He also said he wanted to see DOB assign an individual to CB 10 permanently to increase oversight, as well as the modification of the 311 website, to include illegal conversions as a complaint category, and the issuance of “complete vacate orders” when any portion of a building was deemed to be an illegal conversion, rather than issuing a vacate order just for the area in violation, so “nobody goes in till it’s returned to what is permitted.”
“A special court” to handle illegal conversions was the recommendation offered by Carroll, who said that would facilitate access for DOB inspectors. Currently, residents do not have to open their doors to DOB personnel, and once two attempts have been made, even if access has not been granted, the agency can close the complaint.
Inspectors should be able to get into homes where illegal conversion is suspected, he contended, “but there should be due process.” In addition, he recommended a “huge, huge fine” as a deterrent.
For Brannan, circumstantial evidence of illegal conversion (an excessive number of gas or electric meters or mailboxes, for instance, or a massive amount of trash cans) should be good enough to get action. “You don’t need DOB to come three times and knock on doors,” he contended.
A key, said Tong, is that those living in illegal conversions would not be there if they could afford better. Thus, she told the crowd (to the sound of boos) that the city should make creating affordable housing — for both those who turn to illegal conversions and longtime residents, including many seniors, who are being priced out of their homes — a priority.
“Not everyone is that fortunate,” she stressed. “Those who are less fortunate, the government should help out. You don’t think that’s right?”
The answer from the audience was a chorus of no’s.
El-Yateem, however, concurred, telling the standing room only crowd, “We need to make sure the law is enforced but not victimize the victims who are living in illegal conversions. We need to bring affordable housing to the neighborhood.”
He also said, “We need to strengthen the laws, give them more teeth, make it so DOB can get into buildings.”
And, he added, another issue that needs to be tackled are the basements that are rented out illegally in the neighborhood. They too, he stressed, “are impacting the quality of life in the community.”
McCabe quickly ran through his own 15-point plan when asked for specific solutions to the problem. Among them — replacing Mayor Bill de Blasio, auditing and investigating the DOB, and creating an “illegal conversion density zone,” with DOB required “to sign off on all projects” inside its borders, rather than allowing architects, as many do, to self-certify that their plans are in compliance with zoning and building codes. He also recommended forfeiture of the property as the punishment for developers who create illegal conversions, something that Chirico, an attorney, quickly said was unconstitutional.
The issue is not a new one, noted Chirico. “I’ve done this work for 20 years, and the problem has been growing for the past 10 to 20 years, and it’s still growing, so the current ideas are not working,” he told the crowd
Chirico also said he had, “Lost all faith in the DOB.” The agency, he pointed out, currently can “Request warrants. DOB doesn’t ask for them, and we don’t have time to wait. It’s time to take it out of their hands and put it into a special division of the Fire Department.”
In addition, Chirico asserted, “A series of fines,” should be imposed, and if they are not paid, the certificate of occupancy should be revoked so the property owner cannot sell it.