A New York City Buildings Department program tasked with finding illegally converted apartments in Queens has done little to improve its job performance since 2009, based on the results of an audit released last week.
The report, issued by the office of City Comptroller John Liu, states that the DOB’s Queens Quality of Life Unit is losing ground on enforcement and followup visits on complaints when its inspectors cannot gain access to a building. The process requires either an owner’s permission or a warrant.
Liu’s office found that inspectors responding to complaints did not gain access to the buildings in nearly 80 percent of the cases, based on statistics from fiscal year 2011, up from 39 percent in FY 2008
Total field inspection attempts were unsuccessful 72 percent of the time, in 2011, an increase from 67 percent in 2008
“Not trying to pile on, but the Buildings Department is just dysfunctional and incapable of improving itself,” Liu said in a comment on the report.
“It’s inability to perform basic tasks like these bode poorly not just for the department, but for residents and neighborhoods too,” Liu said.
The primary issue is when building owners or tenants create extra apartments within existing buildings which have not been approved by city officials and often do not meet the city’s building, fire and safety codes.
“We’ve seen two-family houses turned into four-families, and on some streets in Middle Village we can have 75 percent illegal occupancy,” said Bob Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association.
“That places a strain on city services, leads to overcrowded schools, and in the case of absentee landlords they sometimes don’t take care of the buildings,” he said.
The consequences can sometimes go well beyond quality-of-life inconveniences.
In January 2005, six FDNY firefighters became trapped in a maze of illegal walls, apartments and divisions in a Bronx building. Unable to escape the blaze they were forced to jump from a fourth-story window.
Firefighter John Bellew and Lt. Curtis Meyran were killed and the others badly injured in what came to be known in city annals as The Black Sunday Fire.
The building’s landlord was originally convicted of criminally negligent homicide, but had the conviction thrown out on appeal.
Liu’s auditors have recommended that the Department of Buildings seek more assistance from its own legal department, the city’s Law Department and the City Council to secure legal authority to impose fines on owners who deny inspectors access.
They also said the department must be more active in obtaining access warrants after a property has collected numerous failed inspection attempts.
A statement issued on Monday by Gloria Chin, a spokeswoman for the Department of Buildings, said many of the recommendations made in the Liu report have been incorporated already.
“Illegal conversions pose a serious threat for New Yorkers, and the Department is doing more than ever to combat the danger of illegal conversions,” the statement said.
“[T]he department has also launched undercover investigations to successfully target illegal apartments for rent, coordinated citywide educational campaigns to warn tenants about the dangers of an illegal unit and joined a citywide task force to inspect illegal dwellings,” it continued.
The department said those dwellings thought to be at greatest risk of fire are being targeted most aggressively, and that their vacate rates are increasing dramatically.
The concern is not confined to officials in isolated areas of Queens.
Susan Seinfeld, district manager of Community Board 11 in the Little Neck-Bayside area, said illegal conversions are a common problem.
“We get it a lot,” she said. “We have [DOB reports] where the inspector writes something like ‘female opens door and did not allow access’ all the time. It frustrates a lot of people.”
Community Board 13 Chairman Bryan Block said Eastern Queens also is not immune to the problem.
“It is a concern here, and we do work very closely with the Buildings Department when we get a complaint,” Block said Monday. “They respond the best they can.”
That, according to Holden, is the crux of the matter.
“The Department of Buildings does have to follow the law,” he said.
But he also believes there may be a reluctance on the part of high-ranking Buildings Department officials to seek the number of entry access warrants needed, or on the part of judges to grant them in any number that would be effective.
He said any number of such apartments are advertised openly on places like Craigslist, and that lack of supervision — or concern — from absentee landlords can make it easier for such homes to be used for illegal activities.
“And in some cases they refuse to pay the rent and it can take a year to kick them out,” Holden said.