By Eric Yun
That great deal on the apartment that seems too good to be true probably is. That was the message given by the city Department of Buildings (DOB) after its undercover sting of several illegally converted apartments throughout the city.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri announced the results of their effort to crack down on the converted apartments. Earlier this summer, undercover investigators from DOB posed as potential tenants responding Craigslist postings. A total of 62 apartments were inspected, with 54 apartment owners receiving violations and 33 properties vacated. In Queens, eight properties were vacated out of the 23 apartments inspected. Mayor Bloomberg praised the “new, cre- ative way to stop some unsafe conditions.”
Community leaders have been asking the city to crack down on illegally converted apartments for years. Robert Holden, President of the Juniper Park Civic Association—sick of seeing illegal basements and single rooms rented in his neighborhood—had several conversations with Commissioner LiMandri about sending undercover agents to Craigslist listings in April.
“Agents have big problems getting access into buildings. On Craigslist you’re inviting them,” Holden said.
It’s extremely hard for inspectors to check a suspected illegal apartment. According to the DOB website, a property vacated in the undercover operations in Howard Beach, 156-25 76th Street, has received 11 complaints for an illegal basement dating back to 2001. Inspectors repeatedly failed to gain acess to the apartment, and the complaints were closed. An apartment at 64-15 60th Avenue in Maspeth has a similar story. It has received complaints dating back to 2006, but inspectors were denied access to the apartment.
Illegally converted apartments can result in deadly consequences. “Fires in illegal con- versions 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.”
The most common reason a property was vacated was the lack of a second exit, which can pose serious risks in the case of a fire or other emergencies. Other violations included illegal gas, electric or plumbing and rooms without proper windows or ventila- tion. Fines for these violations range from $6,000 to $25,000.
There are many negative aspects illegally converted apartments bring to neighborhoods. “If a one family house becomes a two family house, that’s a 50 percent increase in the community,” Betty Braton, Chairperson of Community Board 10 said. This increase leads to extra garbage on the streets, more cars on the road and overcrowded schools.
Craigslist is just the “tip of the iceberg” if the city wants to truly crack down on illegal apartments, said Holden. There are other websites that allow classified ads, and some
real estate firms promote illegal apartments. Holden recalled that he and members of JPCA went undercover to an open house and the real estate agent offered renting the basement—which would have been illegal—as a benefit to buying the house.
Cracking down on the illegal apartments has been an ongoing problem for many years in Queens. The latest effort from Mayor Bloomberg and the DOB is welcomed by the community, “The question is, will it continue?” Braton wondered.