City to start crackdown on illegal home conversions
Council bill creates stiff penalties for crooked landlords
A City Council bill that was nearly three years in the making was approved unanimously this week, a move that should send chills down the spines of unscrupulous landlords, according to Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and councilmembers.
On Wednesday, Adams and Councilmembers Vincent Gentile, Jumaane Williams and Barry Grodenchik (D-Queens), were celebrating the passage, by a 49-0 vote, of legislation they introduced to increase the penalties against landlords engaging in a dangerous practice known as aggravated illegal conversions, in which three or more illegal dwelling units are created within one structure.
The legislation creates a fine of $15,000 for each individual unit that is three or more units above the Certificate of Occupancy of a building. The fine constitutes a lien on the property. If the fine is unpaid for one year, the lien can be sold by the city.
The bill was partially designed to hit landlords where it hurts — in the pocketbook — according to Gentile, who held a press conference with Bay Ridge housing advocates outside City Hall on Wednesday.
“By removing the profit motive from unscrupulous owners, this bill will help protect tenants from imminently life-threatening conditions, increase the safety of first responders in emergency situations, safeguard our overburdened infrastructure systems and maintain the quality of life in our communities. Seeking to maximize profit at the expense of tenant safety will no longer be permissible by the city of New York once this bill is signed into law,” Gentile (D-Bay Ridge-Dyker Heights-parts of Bensonhurst) said in a statement.
The bill will also bring significant changes to the process of obtaining an access warrant to a building housing an alleged illegal subdivision. After two unsuccessful attempts to gain access, the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) will be able to request the Law Department for an access warrant. Once granted by a judge, inspectors are allowed into the dwelling.
Illegal home conversions constitute a major public safety issue, Gentile said.
“Like sardines in a can, landlords who orchestrate aggravated illegal conversions create hazardous conditions such as extreme overcrowding and insufficient egress. They heighten the threat to our first responders in emergency situations forcing firefighters to navigate their way through a disjointed maze of subdivided units losing people in need of rescue along the way,” Gentile said.
The legislation was first developed after a fire in an illegal unit above a Flatbush church in November 2014 that killed one and injured 16 others. The building was destroyed in the fire.
Williams (D-Flatbush), in whose council district the fire took place, said illegal home conversions are a symptom of a larger problem.
“Illegal home conversions are a high-risk symptom of the overall housing crisis we have in this city. It is our responsibility as legislators to find these bad-acting landlords and thwart their illegal and very dangerous practices,” Williams said. “It is also our responsibility to offer a realistic, affordable housing alternative to the residents.”
But Gentile said the problem isn’t confined to Brooklyn. “Few neighborhoods are immune from the dangers to life and property that illegally partitioning homes poses. Substandard housing is not affordable housing,” he said.
The passage of the bill marks a major step toward safer buildings and a better quality of life for residents, Adams said.
“Today, we address the challenge of aggravated illegally converted homes with common-sense, bipartisan legislation that prioritizes the health and safety of at-risk tenants and neighbors,” Adams stated.
State Assemblymember Pamela Harris (D-Coney Island-Dyker Heights-Bay Ridge) is pushing state legislation. “The best way to prevent the development of these dangerous structures is to impose tougher penalties on those that create them,” she stated.
The council bill is expected to be signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio.
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