Full of old, wooden houses—tailor made for tight-knit multi-family living—Woodhaven, Richmond Hill and Kew Gardens have struggled for years with the dangers of illegally converted homes. That’s why Community Board 9 is hoping to be involved in a pilot project that could knock down the walls currently blocking illegal conversion enforcement.
On May 24, the executive committee of CB 9 met with the Department of Buildings and the FDNY to discuss illegally converted homes. CB 9 District Manager Mary Ann Carey said the board’s first question was: “What do you need from us to make your job easier?”
Often, neither the DOB nor FDNY inspectors can gain access to suspected illegal conversions. If inspectors can’t gain access after two visits, the file is marked as resolved, with a note of no entry. The problem, said Carey, is the difficulty in obtaining warrants.
“If you go twice or three times, the case is closed and you can’t get a warrant to enter without permission,” she said.
Two weeks after the CB 9 meeting, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a program that could help bolster the ability to go after some of the worst illegal conversions.
“Illegally converted apartments pose a serious danger to New Yorkers,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “This new approach, which allows us to use data to increase efficiency and effectiveness, is the latest innovation in our efforts to tackle this problem.”
Under Bloomberg’s plan, high-risk complaints will be inspected with 48 hours by a joint team of Buildings Department inspectors and Fire Department personnel, in an effort to increase the probability of gaining access to the home. According to his press release, Building’s inspectors get into less than half of the buildings they visit.
If the teams cannot enter a building, they will have broader access to warrants and the ability to post vacate orders with assistance from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
“By pooling our resources, this task force will strengthen our efforts to quickly identify and take action to enforce the law with respect to high-risk illegally converted dwellings,” Department of Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Mathew Wambua said. “At the same time, we are able to put a premium on streamlining the city’s ability to share information across agencies.”
The plan will target buildings constructed before 1938, those located in areas with a history of high-risk fires, properties with prior DOB complaints and those under foreclosure. This makes CB 9 a prime location to test the project, said CB 9 Chair Andrea Crawford.
Every month CB9 staff members visit sites that are reported as illegal conversions, and report their findings. According to Crawford, CB 9 is one of very few community boards that utilizes the monthly quality of life inspections.
“CB 9 would love to be a pilot program for this proposal, and we’re best equipped for it” she said. “And we’re not going to let it drop.”
by David J. Harvey