Dyker Heights

Abbate says state may have to step in to stop home conversions

October 15, 2014 By Paula Katinas Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The city’s Department of Buildings issued a Stop Work order on this house at 978 Bay Ridge Parkway in June following complaints from neighbors about construction taking place there.
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New York State may have to step in to stop the so-called illegal home conversions that are taking place at an epidemic rate in the Bay Ridge-Dyker Heights area, according to Assembly member Peter Abbate, who told residents at a political forum that legislation could be the next step.

“State legislation might be necessary. We have to have a coordinated effort,” Abbate (D-Dyker Heights-parts of Sunset Park, Bensonhurst) said during the Dyker Heights Civic Association Debate on Oct. 14.

The controversy surrounding illegal home conversions was a major topic at the debate as residents worried about neighborhood overcrowding peppered the candidates with questions on how to stop the practice.

An illegal conversion is when a property developer buys a one-family or two-family house and subdivides the interior to create several apartments without filing for the proper permits with the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB). The result is that a home zoned as a two-family house has four to six families living there with as many as 25 people crammed into the space. It taxes the city’s resources, according to residents, who said water and sewer usage goes up, schools become overcrowded, and parking spaces become scarce. In addition, it violates building codes and fire codes.

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Community Board 10 has received dozens of complaints from residents of the Bay Ridge-Dyker Heights area who suspect their neighbor’s homes are being converted illegally, said Josephine Beckmann, the board’s district manager. “There are so many of them,” she told the Brooklyn Eagle.

Council member Vincent Gentile (D-Bay Ridge-Dyker Heights-parts of Bensonhurst) has sponsored a bill in the City Council to make it easier for DOB inspectors to issue violations and hold property developers accountable. His bill would allow the DOB to use circumstantial evidence when determining if a building has been illegally converted.  Under the bill,  inspectors who couldn’t gain access to a location could still cite a building owner if there was circumstantial evidence of illegal conversion, such as an excessive number of HVAC units, air ducts, entrances and exits or utility connections.

At the debate, candidates offered ideas on how to tackle the problem.

U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm (R-C-Brooklyn-Staten Island) and state Sen. Marty Golden (R-C-Bay Ridge-southwest Brooklyn) suggested that Mayor Bill deBlasio form a task force made up of DOB officials, cops, fire officials, and others. “We live in an area of one and two-family homes. So they should be one and two family homes,” Grimm said.

“We need a task force with teeth,” Golden said. Utility companies like Con Edison should also be asked to join the task force, according to Golden, because they can provide on-the-ground evidence that a home has been illegally converted into a multi-unit building. “Con Edison knows when it’s hooking up electric boxes,” he said, adding that if a small, two-family house suddenly needs numerous electrical outlets, a red flag should go up.

James Kemmerer, Golden’s Democratic opponent, suggested that the problem is caused in part by the fact that middle class families are fleeing New York, leaving the properties behind for greedy developers to snap up.

The problem could be attacked from several angles, Abbate said.  “We should get the schools involved,” he said, suggesting that school officials be on the lookout for signs of illegal home conversions. “If they have 12 kids living at a single address, you know something is wrong,” he said.

Assembly member Alec Brook-Krasny said he supported Gentile’s bill.  “We have to help inspectors get in,” he said. Brook-Krasny (D-Coney Island-parts of Dyker Heights-Bay Ridge) also said the state should examine ways to crack down on violators.

Stamatis Lilikakis, Brook-Krasny’s Republican opponent, said property owners should be held accountable if the house next door is damaged by construction being done to illegally convert a home into a multi-unit building.

Beckmann agreed with Abbate that state legislation might be necessary. At the very least, she said, current state laws need to be adhered to. “We have state laws that protect tenants in multiple dwellings with three or more units. There has to be a fire safety plan. There have to be different means of egress. If these buildings are being illegally converted, then it means that these tenants are not being protected,” she told the Eagle.

If residents suspect that a building on their block has been or is about to undergo an illegal conversion, they should call 311, according to the DOB website. Residents can also check the DOB website to find the certificate of occupancy for a specific building. That will determine the number of maximum number of people legally permitted to reside there.

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