City Council, Borough President Push Against Illegal Home Conversions

Councilmember Jumaane D. Williams, with Councilmember Vincent Gentile (l) and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams (r), announces new legislation to combat illegal home conversion. Image credit: Ernest Skinner/NYC Council

Councilmember Jumaane D. Williams, with Councilmember Vincent Gentile (l) and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams (r), announces new legislation to combat illegal home conversion. Image credit: Ernest Skinner/NYC Council

The new legislation was announced in the wake of fire fatalities.  On March 8, 2015 Councilmember Jumaane D. Williams held a press conference to announce new legislation to stop illegal home conversions in New York City.  The legislation is co-sponsored by Councilmember Vincent Gentile, who has previously introduced two other bills to halt illegal conversions, and is introduced at the request of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.  An illegal home conversion occurs when a property owner extensively renovates a building to house multiple families without the necessary Department of Buildings permits.  The legislation comes after a two-alarm fire in an illegally converted unit in East Flatbush, Brooklyn killed one person, injured five more, and displaced another sixteen.

The proposed legislation will create a new building code violation – “aggravated illegal conversion” – penalizing any property owner that creates three or more living units out of a whole or partial single unit without proper permits.  The fine for violating this new section would be $15,000 per illegal unit, with all monies generated by the fine to fund housing displaced tenants for a three-month period as well as financing the program.  The legislation stipulates a city agency will administer the displaced tenant program, but does not yet name one in particular.  Under the legislation, violations and fines for violations of the section are lienable against the real property with priority over all but emergency repair liens, and may be sold no differently than a delinquent water bill.

The bill will also expand the availability of access warrants for investigating suspected illegal conversions, based on the extraordinarily unsafe state of the building and emergency nature of the problem.  Inspectors could take quick action to vacate illegal units immediately upon accessing the building.  This stipulation could complement Councilmember Gentile’s Intro 393, which would grant any law enforcement entity the power to issue a summons or notice of violation for illegal conversion based upon “readily observable circumstantial evidence”.

At the press conference, Councilmember Williams emphasized illegal home conversions are a problem impacting New Yorkers citywide.  “Our bill aims to comprehensively end this housing issue once and for all by introducing a number of penalties on bad-actor landlords and gives building inspectors more resources to do their jobs efficiently and effectively. This bill is not aimed at homeowners with basement apartments, but at those who egregiously slice and dice units with no regard to the safety of their tenants.”  Councilmember Gentile addressed the hazards to tenants caused by ignoring construction codes, saying “Illegally converted homes are often places of serious violations of New York City’s fire code, overcrowding, faulty wiring, and structural unsoundness caused by illegal excavation and overbearing of weight.”  Borough President Adams praised the legislation’s consideration of the displaced tenants, calling the bill “[T]he first time we would properly address the displacement problem that occurs when enforcement on these units occurs, helping to prevent homelessness for innocent families.”

A spokesman from Councilmember Williams’ office told CityLand the bill is expected to be introduced at the City Council’s next stated meeting on March 31, 2015, and as the bill will go through the Housing and Buildings committee chaired by Councilmember Williams, a hearing date should follow quickly.  This bill would not supersede Councilmember Gentile’s previous legislation, and while the new bill will not be packaged with the previous bills, there is a good chance all three will receive a hearing at the same time.  The bills are expected to receive a hearing before the scheduled June expiration of New York’s rent-regulation legislation, in keeping with the Housing and Buildings Committee’s “aggressive” hearing schedule leading up to then.

Justin Brannan from Councilmember Gentile’s office told CityLand limiting the aggravated conversion violation to the creation of “three or more” units was intended to capture illegal conversions while leaving property owners with basement apartments alone.  “We want to target property owners converting two-family homes into thirteen apartments, not people who are making their mortgage payment by renting out their basement.”  Mr. Brannan said illegal home conversions have been a citywide problem for some time, and the effects of this new law once enacted would determine wither further action is required.

By: Michael Twomey (Michael is a CityLaw Fellow and a New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2014).

2 thoughts on “City Council, Borough President Push Against Illegal Home Conversions

  1. Another step forward in fighting the illegal home conversions. Thank you for publishing this article.

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