New Law Imposes Harsh Penalties on Illegal Home Conversions

Councilman Vincent Gentile, after the passage of bill 1218-A banning illegal subdivisions in residential spaces. (Photo by Edwin Martínez via El Diario)

On Wednesday, New York City took an important step in its fight against landlords making illegal conversions in their properties to make higher profits when a law was passed to impose severe penalties on unscrupulous owners. Partitions to create additional housing units in one-family homes put the safety of the tenants at risk and affect their quality of life.

This statement was part of Councilman Vincent Gentile’s announcement after the passage of Intro 1218-A, which raises the fine for such violations to $15,000 for every illegal unit. Should offenders fail to pay in a one-year period, the violation could be turned into a lien on the property. The new law should take effect in 120 days.

Typically, the dwellers of this type of housing units are immigrants, making Hispanic and Asian families the most frequent victims. However, the new bill also makes inspections by the Department of Buildings (DOB) easier in apartments where illegal conversions are suspected.

“This law will help combat residential spaces with three or more units more than the number legally allowed,” said Gentile, who sponsored the initiative. The legislator also pointed out that the problem is reaching alarming levels. “Complaints received by 311 about illegal conversions in 2016 surpassed 18,000, averaging 50 per day, and unscrupulous owners are trying to maximize their income by victimizing their tenants,” said the legislators, adding that the practice has ruined many lives.

In 2011, a Mexican family, including a 12-year-old minor, perished in a raging fire in The Bronx. They were unable to escape because emergency exits were sealed due to the building’s illegal conversion. Two years earlier, 3 men died in a fire in Woodside, Queens, in a similar apartment built in a basement.

Councilman Barry S. Grodenchik, from Queens, where several cases of illegal conversion exist, said that the practice does not only affect the safety of tenants but also has a negative impact on the entire community by affecting services and even transportation.

“When landlords rent an illegally-converted basement to three or more families, the problem is not only about quality of life and public safety, but also affects other areas such as schools. In my district, they are at 170 percent or even 180 percent capacity,” said the politician, stressing that, while illegal conversions are not violent crimes, they are crimes against the community.

Doris Nilson-Cruz, president of Community Board 10 in Brooklyn, said that immigrants are the perfect target for unscrupulous landlords, who are only looking to double their profits.

“Latinos and Asians endure this situation more often because they are a vulnerable population that often lacks knowledge about the resources available to them. For this reason, they are exploited and abused by predatory landlords who are only thinking of how much money they can get from doing this,” said the community leader.

Councilman Jumaane D. Williams, from Brooklyn, said that, even though many landlords believe that this is a way for people to live in the Big Apple for a lower price, the practice is extremely risky.

“This is not a matter of affordable housing but of dangerous housing,” said the politician. He wanted to highlight the fact that the practice does not occur within a single group of the population or in specific neighborhoods. “This is happening all over the city, beyond Queens or Brooklyn,” he concluded.

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