City Gets Better Handle on Illegal Housing Conversion Problem; But Affordable Housing and Illegal Hotels Still Problem

It appears as though the city is actually doing a good job executing its multi-agency task-force established to crack down on illegal building conversions.

But, it's also apparent that the city is still having problems with illegal hotels and with affordable housing.

The city came under-fire in 2011 after a family of three and two firefighters were killed in separate fires in illegally converted buildings in the Bronx and Brooklyn. In June 2011, the administration announced the Housing Access Task Force, a multi-agency effort to better access and inspect potentially dangerous illegally converted buildings.

"The thing that I think has been most successful frankly is just the coordination that's gone on between the [Department of Housing Preservation and Development],the [Department of Buildings] and the fire department, " Michael Flowers, director for the mayor's financial task-force, said at a City Council hearing on illegal conversions yesterday. "That level of coordination is such a wonderful thing for bringing to bear the city's resources in the most efficient way on this thorniest of problems."

Rather than investigate buildings solely based upon complaints submitted through 311, the HATF established a metrics system which allows it to better gauge which buildings present immediate danger to public safety. The system takes into account buildings where major accidents have occurred in the past four years and the condition they were in prior to the accident. Buildings with similar financial and structural issues are high-priority.

Despite the apparent success of HATF, the number of buildings -- which the DOB gained access to inspect and issue violations for -- is down from last year. However, with better measures to identify which buildings present the highest risks to public safety, the city believes the inspection system is becoming more efficient.

While many are encouraged that the city is cracking down on the safety hazards illegal conversions can bring, many also acknowledge that illegally converted apartments are the only affordable option for too many New Yorkers.

"We commend the Council for seeking to insure that the City provide protection to thousands of tenants in illegally converted units," Sateesh Nori, a director for Bedford-Stuyvesant Community Legal Services, said in his testimony yesterday. "It [has been] acknowledged that illegally converted single room occupancies do answer a need in this City of high rents and low vacancy rates."

Nori cited recommendations from numerous organizations, including the Pratt Center for Community Development, for the city to launch pilot programs where dwellings with technically illegally converted apartments, but few real safety hazards, can be legalized. Committee on Housing and Buildings Chair Erik Martin Dilan said he's begun to look into such possibilities but building and zoning codes make the plans difficult to execute.

A growing number of the illegally converted rooms, or even legal single-room occupancy units, aren't even going to permanent residents as a means of affordable housing. Instead, permanent residents at these dwelling are being kicked out to make room for illegal tourist occupancy.

Sandra Park, from the Goddard Riverside Center SRO Law Project, described some the dirty tactics land-lords have used to remove permanent residents from their units. Landlords have locked her clients out of their apartments, thrown their mail out and refused to accept their rent then sued them for non-payment.

Responsibility for enforcing illegal hotel regulations lies with the Mayor's Office for Special Enforcement, not the agencies present at yesterday's hearing -- though illegal conversions and illegal hotels are pretty closely linked.

"Illegal hotel complaints are like first cousins of illegal conversion complaints and because that universe is very similar," Flowers said. Last Month, the City Council passed legislation, which goes into effect in December, that calls for a $1,000 to $25,000 fine on building owners who house tourists in illegal hotel units.

Despite the crackdown, Tom Cayler of the Westside Neighborhood Alliance says that many building owners continue to operate unsafe and illegally converted hotel units.

"Even when we're able to identify, even when we're able to get [the Environmental Control Board] to fine these violations, [we've learned that] this is the cost of doing business because there is so much money in illegal hotels," he said. "And, chopping up apartments is just not a problem when it's going to increase your income."

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