Some landlords attempting to maximize profits are illegally converting spaces at a potentially deadly cost.
Hazardous homes, transformed from single-family residences into multi-unit dwellings, have residents throughout Queens worried that faulty wiring and unsafe plumbing could cause fires, floods and possibly the loss of human lives. A majority of these residences, predominantly installed in cellars and attics, lack a secondary means of egress and can prevent tenants from escaping during an emergency.
According to Department of Buildings (DOB) spokesperson Tony Sclafani, the agency fields roughly 20,000 complaints regarding illegal conversions annually, most of which come from Queens. To manage the high volume of complaints from the borough, the DOB created a separate component called the Quality of Life Unit, which is solely dedicated to dealing with Queens-based grievances.
Illegal conversions garner a B rating on the DOB’s priority-arranged scale of complaints — the same level earned by improper fencing, exposed elevator shafts and malfunctioning boilers.
Many neighborhoods throughout the borough are speckled with complaints against residences they believe may be unlawfully harboring multiple families. Ed Wendell, president of the Woodhaven Residents Block Association, said his organization receives several calls each month regarding illegal conversions.
“If you walk by a two-family house and they have 17 satellite dishes, you know there’s a problem,” he said.
Wendell said those most likely to spot these unlawful abodes are neighbors who are reluctant to turn over their street mates for fear of retaliation.
A Woodhaven resident, who wished to remain anonymous, estimates that he has complained about illegal apartments nearly 80 times. Since moving to the neighborhood in the mid 1980s, the resident said he’s seen his block undergo a transformation as mailboxes triple and parking is suddenly impossible.
“A perfectly good home is sold, then its converted,” said the resident. “You see a lot of construction and then there are a large number of people moving in and out of the same premises. We can see externally by the behavior of the people who move in and out that it’s not being occupied by one or two families.”
The local claimed that the increase in residences and people has caused property values in the neighborhood to plummet, something he said translates to low-priced rentals and low-income residents whom he believes bring crime to the neighborhood and degenerate the quality of the area.
“The DOB says they’re doing the best they can but the problem seems to persist,” said the resident, who said that regardless of the numerous complaints logged, the agency has yet to take action against a single residence.
According to Sclafani, the DOB has intensified its approach to finding illegal homes, conducting undercover investigations to seek them out. Since 2010, the number of entry warrants into unlawful dwellings has doubled and the agency distributed more than 160,000 educational flyers, warning residents about the danger of living in an illegally converted home.
A fire in an illegally converted apartment building on 86th Street in Brooklyn in December 2010 that resulted in the death of five tenants led to the filing of manslaughter charges against the owner, according to Sclafani.
In 2011, a fire raged through a home in Woodside, killing one and injuring five others. Upon investigation, it was uncovered the fire began in an illicit apartment.
The DOB conducts 300,000 citywide inspections annually of construction sites in previously existing buildings to ensure work is up to code. In 2011 more than 12,000 vacate orders were presented where dwellings posed a threat to tenants’ safety.