City Hits Illegal Apartment Conversions
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Department of Buildings Commissioner Robert D. LiMandri have announced the results of an undercover operation to crack down on illegally converted dwellings and hold property owners accountable for putting potential tenants and first responders at risk. Beginning in May, investigators from the Department of Buildings searched the online advertising site Craigslist for apartment rental listing and posed as potential tenants in order to inspect buildings in all five boroughs. Investigators discovered illegal living conditions in 54 of the 62 rental apartments inspected, including fire safety hazards such as inadequate means of egress, untested gas lines and single-room occupancies with locks on individual rooms. Inspectors issued vacate orders to 33 properties where the conditions posed an immediate threat to public safety and fines to the remaining properties. Investigating illegal conversions can be extremely challenging, since inspectors respond daily to complaints related to illegal conversions, but can be denied access by a property owner or tenant and obtaining warrants is difficult and often impossible. The undercover operation provides a new means of access for investigators to address illegal and dangerous conditions. The Mayor announced the findings of the undercover investigations in the Blue Room of City Hall where he also was joined by FDNY’s Assistant Chief of Fire Prevention Richard Tobin.
“Illegal conversions can have deadly consequences, and too often we have seen that tragic result,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “Illegal conversions pose a serious risk to tenants, neighbors and first responders. Property owners who create these illegal living spaces are compromising public safety. It’s often difficult, and sometimes impossible, for investigators to gain access to potential illegal conversions and this undercover operation is a new, creative way to stop some unsafe conditions.”
“It is wrong for property owners to rent these illegal living spaces for thousands of dollars each year while putting tenants in harm’s way,” said Commissioner LiMandri. “Property owners who create illegal conversions must be held responsible for ignoring the law, and I want to commend our investigators, inspectors and community liaisons for their work in raising awareness about such a critically important issue. Education and enforcement is the key to preventing another tragedy from occurring, and our efforts will send a strong message to property owners across the City that putting the safety of New Yorkers at risk will not be tolerated.”
“Fires in illegal conversions and occupancies have cost firefighters and tenants their lives,” said Fire Commissioner Salvatore J. Cassano. “These conditions can make it nearly impossible for victims to escape a fire and can make it extremely challenging for firefighters to get to victims in a fire. The FDNY strongly supports efforts to crack down on a problem that puts the lives of so many in jeopardy.”
During the undercover operation, investigators searched advertisements posted on Craigslist in each of the five boroughs. After researching property records and permit history, they visited 23 locations in Queens, 17 in Brooklyn, 12 in Staten Island, six in the Bronx and four in Manhattan.
A lack a second means of egress was the most commonly found serious violation of the City’s building code, and the 33 properties with a lack of second egress were vacated. Other unsafe conditions included illegal gas, electrical and plumbing work, divided rooms with no windows or ventilation, and sleeping quarters arranged near a boiler and furnace.
A total of 104 violations were issued to property owners, with large penalties ranging from $6,000 to $25,000. By law, property owners are required to maintain their buildings in compliance with the City’s building codes. To resolve the violation, property owners must remove the illegal construction work and submit a certificate of correction, or sworn affidavit, to the Department that details how these conditions have been corrected.
While obtaining a warrant to investigate an illegal conversion complaint is difficult and can only be obtained in a small number of cases, in Fiscal Year 2010, the Buildings Department gathered evidence to obtain 63 administrative access warrants for buildings where illegally converted spaces were suspected – nearly double the number of warrants obtained during the past three fiscal years combined.
Last year, the Department of Buildings began an illegal conversions education and awareness campaign, with the Department’s community liaisons distributing educational flyers at major transportation hubs throughout the City and in targeted neighborhoods to warn residents about the dangers of living in an illegally converted space and the typical signs of living in such a dwelling.
The flyer’s safety tips include noting: Residences always must have two easy ways to exit;
Residences always must have a carbon monoxide and smoke detector with working batteries; and
Residents should not use an extension cord as a source of electricity,.
Illegal conversions are building units that have been altered to create additional housing without obtaining proper approvals from the Department of Buildings.
The undercover operation to detect such conditions is part of an intensified enforcement and educational approach to combat the dangers of illegal conversions.