The press conference took place in front of an illegally converted unit above Eglise Baptiste Church, 1434 Flatbush Avenue in East Flatbush, the site of a two-alarm fire that killed one community member and displaced 16 others.
"Illegal home conversions have been putting New Yorkers in harm's way for decades, especially in my district, where we have seen two major fires in converted apartments this past year alone," said Councilman Jumaane Williams. "Our bill aims to comprehensively end this housing issue once and for all by introducing a number of penalties on bad-actor landlords and gives building inspectors more resources to do their jobs efficiently and effectively.
Williams was quick to differentiate between the unscrupulous landlords and homeowners who have converted their basements into apartment.
“This bill is not aimed at homeowners with basement apartments, but at those who egregiously slice and dice units with no regard to the safety of their tenants,” he clarified.
According to a release from Williams’ office, illegal conversions and “cubicle living” has been a persistent problem for four decades in New York City.
Cubicle living occurs when a property owner – usually in a one- to three-family home – takes a house or apartment and subdivides it into several tiny living spaces. They are often in basements and usually in violation of building and fire codes.
This type of living is considered dangerous because it can lack proper exits and entrances and generally has substandard or dangerous electric wiring.
“Illegally converted homes are often places of serious violations of fire code, overcrowding, faulty wiring, and structural unsoundness caused by illegal excavation and overbearing of weight,” Councilman Vincent Gentile said. “It's time we take a stand once and for all against the unscrupulous landlords, architects, and engineers who profit off of the harm they do to our constituents.”
The legislation is expected to be introduced at the next City Council meeting. It will create a new building code violation category – known as “illegal conversion” – that would penalize any property owner who creates three or more living units in a single unit or part of a unit without proper permits.
The bill also extends the availability of access warrants to investigate suspected illegally converted homes to a broader spectrum of signs, which would be based on the extraordinarily unsafe state of the building. Building inspectors would also be allowed to take quick action to have units immediately vacated.
If passed, a new fine would be established that would penalize the owner up to $15,000 per illegal unit.
All fines would go to a designated agency to provide housing – for a three-month period – for those displaced tenants.
Fines will be lienable against the real property, superseding all but emergency repair liens. These liens may be sold in the same fashion as a delinquent water bill.
The different components in the bill will make the reporting and enforcement of illegal conversions easier, while also protecting the housing opportunities for those tenants that currently live in these illegal or dangerous conditions, according to the lawmakers.
“This legislation is the most significant, proactive effort to date to tackle the illegal conversion crisis,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. “For the first time, we would properly address the displacement problem that occurs when enforcement on these units occurs, helping to prevent homelessness for innocent families.”