Dyker Heights

Gentile warns of illegal home conversion dangers

Councilmember says residents are ‘packed in like sardines in a can’

November 10, 2015 By Paula Katinas Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Councilmember Vincent Gentile (left) and Bob Cassara, founder of the Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance, said the city is issuing more stop work orders on construction sites. Eagle photo by Paula Katinas
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The city is starting to make progress in the fight against illegal home conversions, but more needs to be done to stop the unlawful practice, according to Councilmember Vincent Gentile, who said elected officials, civic groups and individual citizens are working together to solve the problem.

Gentile held a press conference in Dyker Heights Tuesday morning to offer a progress report on the efforts to curb illegal home conversions and to call for more action.

Standing in front of a two-family home on 78th Street where the Department of Buildings (DOB) had recently issued a stop work order, Gentile (D-Bay Ridge-Dyker Heights-Bensonhurst) said three bills he is shepherding through the council could help alleviate the situation.

One bill would allow DOB to issue summonses based on externally observable circumstantial evidence of an illegal conversion, including an excess of mailboxes, a large number of utility meters and numerous doorbells.

A second bill would revoke or suspend the ability of architects and engineers to certify their own plans if they submit faulty applications for permits that result in the issuance of a stop work order two or more times in a year.

Gentile is also working on a third bill with the support of Councilmember Jumaane Williams, chairman of the Housing Committee, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams that  would create a Class-1 violation of “aggravated illegal conversion,” that would be defined as the creation of three or more illegal living units in a building. Under the bill, people living in such a building would be ordered to vacate immediately for their own safety.

Local officials estimated that there are dozens of houses in the Community Board 10 area (Bay Ridge-Dyker Heights) that are suspected of being illegally converted homes.

But Assemblymember Peter Abbate (D-Bensonhurst-Dyker Heights-Sunset Park) warned that it’s not just a Bay Ridge-Dyker Heights problem. “This is a real problem growing throughout the city,” he said.

Abbate urged residents to call the community board, DOB or their elected officials if they suspect that a house on their block is suspected of undergoing an illegal conversion.

Illegal home conversion takes place when a developer buys a small property, like a one or two-family house, guts the interior, and coverts the building into a multi-unit building without the proper permits from DOB. Developers often lie on their DOB paperwork to make it appear as if they are making minor changes to the building when in reality they are creating an apartment house, Gentile said.

The result of an illegal home conversion is a building that houses many more tenants than city zoning laws allow, according to Gentile, who said residents “are packed in like sardines in a can.”

The illegally converted houses are a fire hazard due to the additional electrical wiring that is often installed on the property, he said.

Residents “are actually frightened” about the possibility of a fire, said Josephine Beckmann, district manager of Community Board 10.

There is also a health concern. Due to the excess amounts of household trash, there is a concern that rats and roaches will invade a block, Gentile said.

Neighbors are worried that an influx of new residents will put a strain on sanitation and sewer uses.

Assemblymember-elect Pamela Harris (Bay Ridge-Dyker Heights-Coney Island) said the situation is precarious because “the sewer system is antiquated already.”

Schools are becoming dangerously overcrowded, according to John Quaglione, deputy chief of staff to state Sen. Marty Golden. Quaglione pointed out one local school, originally built for 340 students, has an enrollment of nearly double that amount. “They have four lunch periods. The first lunch period is 10 o’clock in the morning,” he said.

Fran Vella-Marrone, president of the Dyker Heights Civic Association, said progress is being made in the fight against illegal home conversions. She noted that since the formation of a multi-agency city task force to investigate the problem, DOB is quicker to act on complaints and is quicker to issue stop work orders.

“We have to draw a line in the sand,” Vella-Marrone said.

Bob Cassara, founder of the Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance, said the neighborhood’s future is at stake. Dyker Heights offers residents “a nice, suburban feel and we want to keep it that way.”

Cassara said he first became aware of the problem when a home on his Bay Ridge Parkway block was undergoing what was supposed to be a minor renovation. He grew suspicious, however, when he saw enormous amounts of dirt from an excavation being put in dumpsters on the street. He said that “after the seventh dumpster” he called Community Board 10.

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