Southern Brooklyn residents are “turning blue” waiting for the Department of Buildings to address almost 50 alleged illegal home conversions in Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights, a band of local politicians contends.
The group – made up of Councilmember Justin Brannan, U.S. Rep Max Rose, state Sen. Andrew Gounardes and Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus – alleges that the agency for far too long “has either paid lip service or turned a blind eye to illegal conversions” in the area, which over the last decade, has seen a surge in them.
The foursome, led by Brannan, put their frustrations in writing on April 1 and, in a letter addressed to DOB Acting Commissioner Thomas Fariello and Brooklyn Borough Commissioner Ira Gluckman, demanded that the DOB get its act together.
Illegal home conversions occur when one and two-family homes are converted into single-room-occupancies (or SROs) with potentially dozens of people living in cramped spaces and in rooms that have been subdivided.
The resulting residences, which do not conform to either zoning regulations or certificates of occupancy, are potentially dangerous to not only the residents who inhabit them but also 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.
“When it comes to illegal conversions and work being done without a permit, residents feel like no one is listening or taking them seriously and I don’t blame them. I feel the same way when I make reports to the Buildings Department that go nowhere,” he said. “The city needs to finally acknowledge there is a real problem here that needs to be addressed before tragedy strikes. I have no idea what they are waiting for.”
To their words, the pols attached a list of 44 addresses – most of them in Dyker Heights – where suspected illegal conversions are either being constructed or currently exist.
“All of these locations have been shared with your agency but we are turning blue waiting for action,” the group contends, later asking how long it will take the DOB to find their part of Brooklyn on a map.
“Perhaps when a tragedy occurs and people die,” they said.
However, Andrew Rudansky, senior deputy press secretary for the DOB, argued that the agency takes these claims seriously.
“Investigating suspected illegal conversions, and ensuring that New Yorkers have safe places to live, is one of our highest priorities,” he said in a statement. “We have a unit dedicated to investigating illegal conversions and we respond to every complaint we receive. We urge all New Yorkers to protect themselves and their families by avoiding these dangerous living situations.”
Rudansky added that the DOB “is currently investigating a number of suspected illegal conversions that the councilmember has recently brought to our attention,” pointing to the agency’s Quality of Life Unit, which he said is dedicated solely to investigating illegal home conversions.
“This sounds great but we have never seen or heard from this unit. Not once,” the pols wrote.
Community Board 10 District Manager Josephine Beckmann stressed the importance of the agency’s frequent inability to access alleged sites, which she said, often ends in the abrupt closure of complaints.
“After two attempts, the Department of Buildings just closes the case,” she said. “No further action necessary. That’s why we’ve got residents who are frustrated, pointing at a property with five doorbells and five cable lines, wondering when anything is going to be done about the 30 people living there.”
Rudansky contended that, with evidence of illegal conversions, the DOB can and does request an access warrant from a judge. However, he said, the bar for that evidence is high — and the decision, out of DOB’s hands. If a case is closed, the rep said, residents should file a new complaint.
But, Beckmann said, the process is already exhausting enough, especially for some neighbors who are just trying to stop conversions before they start.
“Oftentimes residents will catch what is so clearly an illegal conversion being constructed and, until someone lives there, we cannot say it’s an illegal conversion,” she said. “We have to wait until someone is living there to file a complaint.”
That said, there has been no shortage of illegal conversion complaints in Board 10.
In 2018 alone, Beckmann said, there were 549. There were 2,095 between 2015 and 2018.
Two bills were passed in 2017 to combat illegal home conversions – the first, championed by Brannan’s predecessor Vincent Gentile, upped the fines for converters while the second ensured transparency by mandating that property owners provide proof of proper certificates of occupancy to prospective tenants.
But, Brannan, Rose, Gounardes and Frontus want to know, “Why have laws at all if they aren’t enforced?”
“Our constituents are fed up and so are we. Enough is enough.”