Brooklyn Boro

OPINION: Next steps are just as important with illegal home conversions

June 2, 2017 By Rev. Khader El-Yateem Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Rev. Khader El-Yateem. Eagle file photo by John Alexander
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When the conversation about illegal home conversions first began to emerge on Community Board 10 and in conversations among neighbors, I was torn. As a father of four living in Dyker Heights, I had seen the negative impact illegal conversions had on my neighborhood — crowded classrooms, clogged streets, excessive noise coming from the illegally converted homes down the street.

But as an immigrant who came here to raise a family, I was also concerned about the effect that this would have on primarily immigrant families. I know what it is like to be new to a neighborhood, trying to find a community and a reliable place to live. Would I be advocating for people to lose that shelter, however “substandard” it might be?

But then I started to hear stories of the conditions that people were living in, and what they were paying for it. Not only are illegally converted homes hazardous — people have died in fires in illegally converted homes — the practice is exploitative. While the real estate market in our neighborhoods isn’t exactly affordable, a person can get an apartment that is respectable and livable for themselves and their children for the same price as what these greedy landlords are charging tenants for mere closets in illegally converted homes.

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For a landlord to suggest to newly arrived immigrant families that an illegally converted home is their only option is nothing other than an attempt to profit off the disadvantaged. We have a duty to ensure that this exploitation ends in our neighborhoods, which is why I support Councilman Gentile’s bill to crack down on aggravated illegal home conversions — especially the most egregious cases — that his colleagues in council recently voted unanimously to pass.

However, I cannot say in all honesty that I felt like celebrating when the bill was introduced or passed, and I continue to think about who will benefit and who will suffer from this bill. While we are confident that this will prevent future illegal home conversions from taking place by heavily fining bad actors, we also know that along the way, people (primarily low-income immigrant families) will absolutely lose their housing.

Sure, this may be a necessity if we ever want to nip this thing in the bud, but it’s not something that should be taken lightly, especially if we are enacting this legislation because we believe people deserve good housing. While the city has promised that “transitional housing” will be provided to those who lose their homes, we know that these promises aren’t always kept — especially if they are not written into the legislation.

Our city and our local elected officials now need to put just as much effort into ensuring that tenants who have been victimized are immediately assisted in finding a respectable home. If they don’t, then it shows that the true aim of this bill was simply about quality of life issues for existing homeowners, and that securing safety for exploited tenants was merely an afterthought.

Finally, we should also focus on the root of the problem. There is a significant lack of affordable and livable housing in our neighborhoods. People who have lived here their entire lives are getting priced out left and right, and many of our seniors are getting squeezed out of their lifelong homes with few options available to them.

We need more affordable housing. And when I say “affordable,” I mean truly affordable to the people who live in this neighborhood. The problem is, we have not prioritized this issue like we should have, partially because the words “affordable housing” are still, I think falsely, feared.

For example, years ago, I fought to secure a HUD 202 grant for a vacant lot in partnership with a local organization. This grant would have funded an affordable housing building for Bay Ridge seniors and families. We worked day and night for months to secure it, and then when we were finally awarded the grant, and when it came time for the project to be finalized, board members of the organization came out of the woodwork to shut down the project because they were worried that it would “lower home values.”

In other words, they wanted to deny safe and quality housing to families, so they could still make a buck. Doesn’t that sound like the same problem we’re facing with the greedy landlords of illegal home conversions? Will our desire to make a buck off of property values continue to be more important than ensuring lifelong residents can afford to stay here?

The bottoms line is this: I’m happy that this bill passed. And I sincerely congratulate everyone who has worked so hard to push this issue. Our neighborhoods will be better for it. But I fear that if we stop our efforts here, and don’t start to prioritize keeping our neighborhoods livable and affordable for both the victims of illegal home conversions, as well as for the families and seniors who are being priced out, then this noble effort will be entirely incomplete.


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