Proposal imposes steep fines on bad actors, and helps Buildings inspectors gain premises access. On June 21, 2016, New York City Council Members Vincent J. Gentile, Jumaane D. Williams, and Barry S. Grodenchik introduced legislation that would impose high penalties on bad actor landlords and equip the Department of Buildings with means to gain entry into suspected illegal conversion sites. This bill was developed with the support of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, after a November 2014 fire in an illegal unit above a Flatbush church killed an individual and injured 16 others, destroying the building.
Introduction 1218 (2016) would establish a fine of at least $45,000 for aggravated illegal conversions — $15,000 for each unit — and expand the authority of the New York City Department of Buildings and the New York City Environmental Control Board (ECB) to inspect properties and impose fines and other penalties. An aggravated illegal conversation is defined as three or more illegal dwelling units being created within one structure. The aggravated illegal conversions bill provides that fines imposed by ECB automatically create liens that, if unpaid, could be included in a lien sale, and adds aggravated illegal conversions to the list of offenses for which a vacate order could be issued due to immediately hazardous conditions. Additionally, if inspectors from Buildings fail to enter the premises after several attempts, this bill creates a procedure for the Buildings to request a warrant for entry from the Law Department.
“These strong restrictions and penalties will force egregious property owners to comply with New York City’s building code,” said Council Member Gentile. “Substandard housing is not affordable housing. New York City may be called the ‘Big Apple’ but today we declare that we will not tolerate ‘Bad Apples’ who put the lives of low-income working families, immigrants, and the quality of our neighborhoods’ infrastructure and residential character at risk.”
“As we have learned from tragedy after tragedy, illegally converted homes present a serious threat to the health and safety of the families living there as well as to the entire surrounding neighborhood,” said Borough President Adams. “Fire escapes and other safety features we expect to have in our homes…are often absent in illegally converted housing units, and overcrowding has overwhelmed the capacity of communities…on fundamental quality-of-life matters. I am confident that this measure will establish the appropriate penalties and procedures that DOB needs to effectively handle these critical cases.”
“Illegal home conversions are a high-risk symptom of the overall housing crisis we have in this City,” said Council Member Williams. “It is our responsibility as legislators to find these bad-acting landlords and thwart their illegal and very dangerous practices. Illegal conversions are unsafe, as evidenced by the two major fires that took place in my district last year; they deteriorate the quality of life for residents and community members, and put a strain on local resources. All New Yorkers, regardless of race, socioeconomic or legal status, deserve a safe and quality place to call home.”
“Unfortunately, some unscrupulous landlords are trying to exploit New York City’s longstanding housing crisis by setting up housing that is both unlawful and unsafe,” said Council Member Barry S. Grodenchik. “Illegal conversions have had devastating effects on neighborhoods and in some cases have led to fatal accidents. Many tenants may be unaware that they are living in illegally converted units and facing potentially serious safety hazards.”
Prior to introduction, Council Member Gentile held a rally in support of this new bill in the Dyker Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn Community Board 10. The rally was attended by many local residents, community groups and other local elected officials, drawing bi-partisan support. Community Board 10 has received more than 400 illegal conversion complaints in the past year, including a two-family home suspected of being converted to a six-family home. Josephine Beckmann, Community Board 10 District Manager stated, “Substandard construction that creates illegal subdivisions of dwelling units within one and two family homes creates safety risks for residents and first responders. I applaud the collaborative response from Borough President Eric Adams, Council Member Vincent Gentile, Council Member Jumaane Williams as well as Council Member Barry Grodenchik and believe their Aggravated Illegal Conversions Bill will not only penalize bad actors but return the one and two family homes to safe and legal occupancy.”
Although the rally was held in South Brooklyn, Council Member Gentile made it clear to Cityland that illegal conversations are not just a local issue, and that this new bill will help combat this citywide problem. Additionally, Council Member Gentile has sponsored two other illegal conversion bills, introduced in 2014, and he has urged the Committee on Housing and Buildings to consider these bills as a package with the new aggravated illegal conversions measure. (Read CityLand for past coverage here).
City Council: Int 1218-2016 (Jun. 21, 2016)
By: Brian Kaszuba (Brian is the CityLand Editor and New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2004).