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Brannan task force looks to stop illegal home conversions

Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights are in the midst of a housing crisis brought on by a proliferation of illegal home conversions creating dangerous living conditions for tenants and overtaxing the infrastructure, according to local officials.

Councilmember Justin Brannan, who represents Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and parts of Bensonhurst, reconvened a task force to take a deep dive into the issue.

The task force, which includes representatives from the Department of Buildings, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the NYPD, the FDNY and Community Board 10, held its first meeting last week.

“We felt it was critical to reconvene a local illegal conversion task force because the problem persists and tenants, their neighbors and first responders are all at risk,” Brannan told the Home Reporter.

The task force had been in existence when Republican Martin Golden was in the State Senate and Democrat Vincent Gentile represented Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights in the City Council. 

Both men are no longer in office.

Brannan, who succeeded Gentile in the council, said he thought it was time to bring it back because illegal home conversions are still a problem.

Illegal home conversions take place when a property owner subdivides a single-family or two-family home into multiple units, in some cases as small as a single room, and rents them out to tenants.

The subdivisions often take place without proper permits from the DOB. Many of the subdivided units have no fire escapes or other forms of egress, and several of the buildings have faulty gas lines, local officials said.

In some cases, a building that formerly served as a two-family home now has as many as 30 people living there, said Board 10 District Manager Josephine Beckmann.

“We continue to receive complaints from residents about suspected illegal home conversion sites,” Beckmann told the Home Reporter, adding that the task force “is a good way to monitor the situation.”

DOB is the agency tasked with inspecting sites that have generated complaints.

“Investigating suspected illegal conversions, and ensuring that New Yorkers have safe and legal places to live, is one of our highest priorities at the Department of Buildings,” DOB spokesperson Abigail Kunitz told the Home Reporter. “DOB has been working closely with FDNY, Brooklyn Community Board 10, and local elected officials to address community concerns about illegal conversions in the area. DOB also has a unit dedicated specifically to investigate suspected illegal conversions, and every complaint we receive is investigated.”

DOB received 5,411 reports of suspected illegal home conversions in Brooklyn in 2018. Board 10 accounted for 540, approximately 10 percent of those reports. Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 8 of 2019, 3,081 complaints were filed with DOB. Of those, 336 were from Board 10.

One site, a two-story house at 1014 Bay Ridge Parkway, is particularly noteworthy, according to Beckmann. “We received numerous calls from residents about that location. It looked like a third floor was being added to the building,” she said.

DOB immediately slapped a Stop Work order on 1014 Bay Ridge Parkway to halt construction, Beckmann said.

“Illegal conversions are a dangerous, exploitative practice of greedy, lawbreaking landlords who create unsafe apartments and rent them out knowing what they’re doing is wrong. We need the city agencies to share our urgency and that’s why we reconvened the task force. These apartments are not only illegal but they are completely unsafe and they put everyone in peril,” Brannan said.

Illegal home conversions contribute to other problems, like increases in trash, decreases in parking spaces, overcrowded schools and water shortages, according to housing preservation activists.

The problem persists, despite new laws put into place on both the city and state levels.

In 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill sponsored by Councilmembers Vincent Gentile, Jumaane Williams and Barry Grodenchik and Borough President Eric Adams to create a special category of violation, Aggravated Illegal Conversions, to hit landlords with a $15,000 penalty for each illegally partitioned unit.

A state law was signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in December of 2017. The law, sponsored by then-senator Martin Golden and then-assemblymember Pamela Harris, requires a property owner to provide notice to tenants as to whether a Certificate of Occupancy is valid. The law is meant to protect tenants who mistakenly assume the apartment they are seeking to rent is up to code.

“Illegal conversions are a health hazard to those who live in them as well as neighbors. As counsel to the Brooklyn borough president, I was responsible for working on the laws that created significant fines of $15,000 per illegally converted unit to the homeowner. While I’m proud of this progress, we need enforcement and action before people are harmed by these unsafe living conditions,” said State Sen. Andrew Gounardes.

Gounardes formerly served as counsel to Adams.

Illegal home conversions persist because of the lack of affordable housing in New York, Brannan said.

“There is a direct correlation between the proliferation of illegal conversions and the lack of affordable housing, not only in our area, but across the city. But substandard housing is not affordable housing; it’s dangerous housing. And the majority of the people living in illegal conversions are there because it’s all they can afford,” he said.

Kunitz said DOB urges residents to be careful when renting apartments. “We urge all New Yorkers to protect themselves and their families by avoiding these dangerous living situations,” she said.

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