Dyker Heights

City making progress against illegal home conversions, advocates say

August 17, 2015 By Paula Katinas Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Bob Cassara, Jeanine Bardo (center) and Fran Vella-Marrone, the leaders of the Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance, are fighting to keep the epidemic of illegal home conversions from spreading. Eagle photo by Paula Katinas
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The problem of illegal home conversions is like an epidemic in communities across Brooklyn, but the city is slowly making progress in the fight against the unlawful practice, according to housing preservationists in Dyker Heights.

Bob Cassara, a longtime Dyker Heights resident and founder of the Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance, told the Brooklyn Eagle that in May and June the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) sent inspectors to investigate 480 sites within the Community Board 10 area (Bay Ridge-Dyker Heights) that were suspected of being in the process of being illegally converted from single and two-family homes into multiple unit dwellings.

The results of those inspections are not known, but Cassara said he’s pleased with the city’s action.

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“It shows the city is starting to take this seriously,” he told the Eagle.

Following a Feb. 26 town hall meeting— which drew more than 250 residents to a Knights of Columbus Hall at 1305 86th St. to voice their concerns over the effects of illegal home conversions— Cassara and Fran Vella-Marrone, president of the Dyker Heights Civic Association, formed a community task force to hunt down suspected sites and report them to authorities.

The task force also advocates for new laws to prevent illegal home conversions in the future.

The de Blasio Administration formed a task force of representatives from several agencies, including DOB, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and the Police and Fire departments to work on long-term solutions.

Pointing to the work of the city task and the local panel, Vella-Marrone said she believes slow but steady progress is being made.

“The gist of it is that illegal home conversions are still a major problem but that the city is now taking that problem seriously,” she told the Eagle.

According to the DOB’s website, an illegal home conversion takes place when a property owner sub-divides the interior of a one or two-family house into multiple units, often the size of tiny cubicles and then rents out the units.

As a result, a building that is zoned for one or two families instead will have 20-25 people living there, according to Cassara and Vella-Marrone.

Illegal home conversions make communities far more crowded than they ordinarily would be and puts a strain on sanitation, water and sewer usage, according to housing preservationists. It’s also dangerous, civic leaders said, since many of the illegal units are poorly planned and often don’t have fire escapes and other emergency exits.

“There are so many problems associated with it,” Vella-Marrone said. “It’s a safety issue. These units often have transient tenants living in them.”

It also has an effect on the real estate market, Vella-Marrone claimed.

“There’s also the problem that stems from the fact that unscrupulous developers are buying these one and two-family homes and paying inflated prices for them so that they can subdivide them. That affects the real estate market and people’s property taxes,” she said.

Elected officials are seeking to combat the problem through legislation.

Borough President Eric Adams introduced legislation in the City Council and is working with council members Vincent Gentile (D-Bay Ridge-Dyker Heights-Bensonhurst) and Jumaane Williams (D-Flatbush) to get it passed.

Under the bill, a new building code violation category would be created: aggravated illegal conversion, punishable by a fine of $15,000 per unit. The legislation calls for inspectors from the DOB to have the ability to take quick action to have illegal units vacated immediately.

In February, state Sen. Marty Golden (R-C-Bay Ridge-Southwest Brooklyn) introduced legislation that would have the owner of an illegally converted dwelling charged with a Class D Felony, punishable by up to seven years in prison, if a person suffers physical injury in or around the property.

“We want to make sure we close down all of the avenues. We have to go after them in every way possible,” Golden told the Eagle when he introduced the legislation.

For more information on the Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance, visit www.brooklynhpa.com.

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