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Uniting against divisions: Locals, pols battle illegal home conversions

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Residents of Dyker Heights are declaring war on illegal home conversions, and now local politicians are joining the fray with proposed laws to give the city more weapons for fighting the residential scourge.

Two civic groups are holding a town hall meeting on illegal conversions in Dyker Heights on Feb. 26. The practice of dicing one- and two-family homes into multi-family apartments is pervasive in Southern Brooklyn, locals say. The illegally altered buildings can lack light, fresh air, and safe exits — putting residents and firefighters in harm’s way. Because the subdivided homes increase a neighborhood’s population, they also tax city services and can contribute to school overcrowding.

State and local politicians have introduced several bills to help combat what they have characterized as “an epidemic,” and we have boiled them down for you ahead of next Thursday’s town hall.

Make it a crime

Two state senators want to make it a felony to alter a building without a permit or outside a permit’s scope.

State Sen. Martin Golden (R–Bay Ridge) introduced a bill (S3239-2015) on Feb. 3 that targets property owners who are aware of an illegally converted building if someone is seriously hurt or dies as the result of the alteration. Golden’s proposal imposes misdemeanor charges, fines, and possible jail time on anyone who aids in violating a work permit or a certificate of occupancy. The bill has yet to clear committee.

Queens state Sen. Tony Avella introduced a similar bill (S889-2015) on Jan. 7 that would charge not only landlords but also contractors, and even tenants for knowingly altering a building beyond it’s permits. That bill has also yet to clear committee.

Hold bad actors accountable

Assemblyman N. Nick Perry (D–East Flatbush) proposed a bill (A5046-2015) on Feb. 10 that would stick contractors with fines for illegal conversion if landlords can prove they didn’t know the un-permitted work was taking place. The bill has yet to clear committee.

Get inspectors inside

Residents call 311 thousands of times a year to complain about illegal home conversions, but the city only inspects a fraction of locations — in part because landlords and tenants have to let them in. A bill (Int. 393-2014) introduced by Councilman Vincent Gentile (D–Bay Ridge) would let buildings inspectors issue violations to buildings showing circumstantial evidence of illegal conversion — such as multiple electric meters or mailboxes serving a single home. The owner could clear the ticket by letting inspectors in and proving he or she didn’t illegally sub-divide the home.

Gentile introduced the bill in 2014. It has yet to clear committee, but Gentile said he has new fuel for his fight. City workers testified at a January hearing on illegal hotels that inspectors use circumstantial evidence when investigating short-term rentals, but not when inspecting suspected home conversions, Gentile said. The lawmaker will use that precedent to argue for his bill, he said.

Protecting firefighters

In 2013, an upstate lawmaker introduced a bill (S6254-2013) creating a class of felonies for property owners who put firefighters in harm’s way by turning individual homes into dangerous mazes of drywall.

“While responding to any emergency is dangerous, this is particularly so when a building has been illegally altered, usually to make room for more occupants,” the bill states. “Far too often, these situations result in serious injury to, or even the death of, firefighters or other emergency personnel.”

A firefighter died responding to a 2007 blaze in an illegally converted loft in Williamsburg.

That bill has been stuck in the senate’s Codes Committee since Jan. 9, 2014.

“Town Hall Meeting about Illegal Home Conversions” at The Knights of Columbus [1305 86th St. between 13th and 14th avenues in Dyker Heights, brooklynhpa.com, www.dykerheightscivicassociation.com]. Feb. 26 at 7 pm.

Reach reporter Max Jaeger at mjaeger@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–8303. Follow him on Twitter @JustTheMax.
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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