Residents in Maspeth and Middle Village and are not happy about what they perceive as a growing trend in their neighborhoods— illegal apartments.
“A day doesn’t go by that I don’t get a call from neighbors that are complaining from problems from illegal basements and single room occupancy,” said Bob Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, who addressed resident concerns during the group’s meeting last week.
Housing advocates estimate there are about 100,000 illegal apartments in New York City with the numbers continuing to grow.
Across the city, homeowners often rent out portions of their homes to earn extra revenue. However, some of the spaces may not be legal.
The Department of Housing Preservation and Development makes separate designations on whether portions of a house can be considered a separate dwelling. Basements are classified as having at least one half of its height above curb level, while a cellar has at least one half below curb level. The DHPD states that neither in a multiple dwelling can be occupied unless they meet minimum requirements and the approval by the New York City Department of Buildings.
However, the rules for private dwellings are completely different. Cellars can never be rented or lawfully occupied while basements can only be rented if they meet certain requirements. Despite the possibility of criminal and civil sanctions, both are still being rented across the city, with areas of Queens having a high concentration.
“There’s money involved and people don’t stop and think what could happen,” Holden said. “The more we get the word out about this the more people will realize that it is not a good deal.”
Holden and residents assert that illegal apartments create quality of life issues for the neighborhood.
“I personally am not aware of illegal apartments but I have to assume that there are some,” said Lorraine Sciulli, Vice President of the JPCA and a resident of Middle Village. “Because many times we have far more cars on the street, given that I live on street with one family homes.”
Sciulli added, “It’s definitely a negative impact because you have a high turnover. I have to think that the apartments don’t attract the best people because it’s a transient situation.”
Aside from increased traffic and the possibility of higher crime, illegal apartments cause serious risks in the event of an emergency.
In November 2009, three men in Woodside died after a fire broke out in a basement that had been converted into four one-room spaces.
Many illegal apartments often do not have the appropriate amount of exits or other measures such as smoke detectors or sprinklers. As a result they can become a deathtrap in the case of a fire.
“People who choose to live there are gambling with their own lives,” Holden asserted.
However, cracking down on illegal apartments is not so simple.
Upon receiving complaints about illegal apartments, inspectors visit the site and leave a form if they can’t make contact with the owner. If they are denied entry twice, the case is considered closed, allowing landlords and owners to continue to illegally rent the property. Additionally, obtaining warrants to go into the properties is a rarity which furthers hinders access.
Holden has been in touch with Commissioner Robert LiMandri from the Department of Buildings who has communicated that he is putting together a team to better combat illegal housing and address the problem in the area. A spokesman from the city Department of Buildings said that more than 1,100 vacate orders were issued last year, a large number of which were in Queens. Still, he conceded that a large number of illegal dwellings still exist.
“Illegal conversions are a serious problem and we respond to thousands of complaints each year,” said Sclafani. “Structures built in Queens are more easily converted than apartments in Manhattan. Education is the best key to preventing another tragedy.”
Holden suggests that a key part of fighting illegal apartments in the area and elsewhere is targeting sites online, such as Craigslist, where many basement apartments are listed.
Still, Holden said it’s up to more than just city agents to fight the problem. Residents have to be proactive in fighting illegal apartments and encouraged then to call 311 if they have any complaints and later follow up to see what is being done, Holden said. “It’s our community, our block, don’t just sit there and take it.”