Queens Subdivided Basement Fire: How Many More Waiting to Happen?

After a fire in an illegally and dangerously subdivided Queens basement killed three people last weekend, the Times has been raising questions about whether authorities are doing enough to crack down on the estimated 100,000 units of illegally-converted housing units in the city.

They're right to raise questions. Now let's bring home the point: This house, at 42-40 65th Street in Woodside, had been inspected twice by Buildings Department inspectors -- in 1990 and in 2004 -- in response to complaints that there were "extra rooms" in the basement. Inspectors did not find violations on either occasion...

The public has good reason to be skeptical of the inspectors' findings. From 2002 to the present, the city's Department of Investigations has arrested 37 Buildings Department employees on a variety of corruption charges (including bribe receiving, extortion, fraud, theft of government property, falsifying records and enterprise corruption) and 215 individuals who had fraudulent business dealings with the DOB. Earlier this fall, prosecutors arrested six people and accused the agency of being infiltrated by the mob.

So far, there is no basis to suspect of foul play in this case (The DOB says it is conducting an internal review of the inspector's records, and we hope the agency will make the findings public).

Building inspectors can be unpredictable. They often have differing opinions about what constitutes safe living conditions. One inspector may find a situation to be a building code violation while another one may not, says Christopher Schwartz, a supervising attorney with MFY Legal Services who represents tenants.

A case in point is the lodging house at 81 Bowery in Chinatown, the subject of last week's Voice cover story. In November 2008, buildings inspectors found that the partitions tenants had built to the ceiling were blocking fire sprinklers and therefore causing an "imminent threat" to the tenants' lives. On the same day the violation was found, the agency conducted an emergency evacuation, relocating people who had for decades called these cramped cubicles home. But a review of Buildings Department records shows that, the very same partitions had been inspected in previous years, and had not been found to be an "imminent threat" to life, nor had they merited an emergency evacuation.

It's also worth pointing out that at least one cause of the growing number of illegal subdivisions in recent years is declining number of legal lodging houses in the city.

Places like 81 Bowery are increasingly few. There is no accurate tally, but thousands of lodging houses -- known as single room occupancy buildings, or SROs -- have disappeared during the real estate boom of recent years. Many have been converted by landlords into market-rate apartment buildings. (Some of the more well-known residential buildings in upper Manhattan, such as the Barbizon on East 63rd street, used to be lodging houses, as did some NYU dorms). In New York, you can legally live in a cubicle in a subdivided room, provided you follow certain building code regulations that stem from as far back as 1906.

As the legal means for living in a cubicle has been swallowed up, people are increasingly turning to illegal means. While both can be hazardous, the illegal conversions are more dangerous because they are further from the radar of authorities.

Tony Sclafani, the spokesman for the Department of Buildings, told the Voice that the agency has steadily increased the number of emergency evacuations related to illegal conversations in recent years - from 738 in 2006 to 1,086 in 2008. Since 2002, Sclafani said, the agency has also added an online system to that tracks inspectors' whereabouts using GPS technology, and has worked closely with the Department of Investigation in its crackdown on fraud.


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