Behind Closed Doors

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While the New York City skyline soars, is overcrowding in strictly zoned Dyker Heights flying under the radar?

On September 30, a New York City law took effect to increase the city’s leverage against some illegal rental practices. The law was approved with great fanfare last spring. It has fallen out of the city-wide news cycle since last May, but residents of South Brooklyn have yet to let the subject go. 

Local law 94 slaps hefty fines on landlords or developers who illegally increase the number of tenants in a house, and affords the Department of Buildings more leverage to chase them down. This should be welcome news for civilians in South Brooklyn who have been campaigning for several years to end what they see as a tidal wave of “illegal home conversions”; but some worry the law is all bark and no bite.

This past June, in between the law’s spring approval and its fall activation, a four-family home in Dyker Heights made headlines. The house, a semi-detached brick construction from the 1920s, looks standard-issue for the quiet neighborhood. But a photo published by the Brooklyn Reporter on June 23rd showed how a conspicuous crowd gathered outside of 1317 73rd street the night before, when police and Department of Buildings officials ordered the evacuation of five of the building’s residents.

The offender in the June 22 scandal was the building itself – specifically, what inspectors found behind its walls. Restrictive zoning in Dyker Heights prohibits developers from tearing down old houses to build taller apartment complexes in their wake. This move, championed by the area’s current city council member Vincent Gentile in the mid-2000s, was meant to preserve the neighborhood’s family feel. As a result, its low-slung skyline has remained intact. But some buyers, like 1317’s Xiang Sai He, have found a different way to increase the area’s capacity: build additional living spaces inside of existing homes, allowing more spaces to be rented out without adding to the buildings’ exterior.

The front door of 1317 73rd Street is flanked by homes flying patriotic symbols. (Rebekah Ward/The Brooklyn Ink)

For Council Member Gentile, this trend of overcrowding structures was a surprise. Law 94, which he co-wrote and campaigned for, attempts to rectify the unexpected twist. Since his zoning changes, buyers have been taking existing structures “and subdividing them in such a way so that the owner of the building would get super-profit out of every inch of the building. In contradiction to the certificate of occupancy,” Gentile said. The council member believes that the trend is rapidly pricing out families who would otherwise be able to afford these houses. And he thinks this new bill is a good first step towards stemming the tide of change.

In the bill’s open hearing before city council last fall, however, the Department of Buildings – the group responsible for enforcing the new legislation – was one of only a couple of dissenting voices. Representative Alexandra Fisher explained in detail how from their perspective the draft legislation “is either preempted by State law, duplicates existing authority, or would prove ineffective.” Gentile insists that their official position has changed by now, since the department constitutes an arm of the city government which has since approved the law. But the key points to which Fisher objected all made it into the final version, in some form. Neighborhood activists such as Bob Cassara, founder of the Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance, are worried that reluctance on the part of the enforcement authority to get behind the bill will doom its effectiveness from the start.

In the case of Xiang Sai He’s property, the Department of Buildings approved an initial construction plan in 2015 with a price tag of $60,000. The plan included the relocation of a kitchenette and bathroom to the basement, and the installation of a new boiler and hot water heater, but “no change in use, egress or occupancy.” Two and a half years and six separate illegal home conversion complaints later, the Department of Buildings found that the construction wasn’t quite what it was supposed to be: six families were living in the four-family home, and two apartments had been added illegally. On June 22, tenants living in the basement were evacuated and passed on to the Red Cross for relocation assistance. The owners were ordered to get rid of two apartments, to bring the building up to code. Two months later, after renovations listed at $9,000, the borough commissioner of buildings lifted the vacate order. Residents and landlords were free to go about their business.

Today, 1317 73rd Street shows signs that life has continued as normal. Hefty recycling and garbage bins take up a corner of the front yard, next to an old-school bicycle. A silver minivan can be seen, sliding doors slung open, hovering by an agape cellar door off the driveway. But the property’s curtains are drawn tight, and there’s no doorbell or knocker on foreboding metal front door. 

By contrast, the old wooden door to its left – opening into the attached building – is framed by three standard-issue doorbells, and adorned with a lawn sign still calling for “Liam McCabe for City Council” one month after McCabe lost in the Republican primaries. A favorite among neighborhood conservatives looking to shake up the city council race, McCabe made illegal home conversions central to his campaign.

Despite his early enthusiasm for the issue, McCabe wasn’t the only city council hopeful to speak about illegal home conversions on the trail. Civic activist Bob Cassara made sure of that.

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In an inconspicuous church basement just days before the city council primary polls opened, eight out of the nine actively campaigning candidates for District 43 faced a packed house. All eight were vying for term-limited council member Gentile’s seat. Cassara’s organization, along with the Dyker Heights Civic Association, wanted to make sure community members concerned with the issue knew what each city council hopeful would do for them.

In response to prompts from the moderator and audience members, candidates on both sides of the aisle stood to take aim at the property owners and landlords who illegally added rooms to neighborhood homes. Republicans and Democrats alike suggested that as council member they would each crack down harder, go farther to end the surge. And they all pointed out systemic issues that come along with an increase in such conversions – tens of thousands of extra seats needed in schools, a waste management system that can’t keep up, and potentially unsafe conditions for firefighters, to name a few.

While Democrats were more eager to describe the conversion tenants as victims who would need alternative living options and Republican candidates emphasized strong-arm approaches, candidates on both sides of the aisle came down hard on landlords – often non-resident investors who they saw as exploiting the system. Justin Brannan, the establishment candidate on the Democrat side who currently works for council member Gentile, pushed back at frequent claims that Bill 94 wouldn’t work: “Let’s see what happens after September 30,” he said. But even Brannan was already talking next steps, claiming that if elected he would find a way to “follow the money” and eliminate repeat offenders.  

Tensions rose when Nancy Tong, Brooklyn’s first Asian American elected official and a Democratic city council hopeful, brought up that leaders “should find affordable housing” as a solution for current conversion tenants. A small roar rose from the audience, peppered with phrases like “they don’t even speak English!”, drowning her out until the moderator stepped in to silence the crowd. In this neighborhood, both converters and tenants of conversions are predominantly Chinese-American, while the church basement chairs were mostly filled by older, white residents.

Tong explained later that she believes Bill 94 only tackles one end of the housing crisis: the landowners who create the illegal conversions. According to her, the law leaves out families who are stuck living in unsafe conditions. “Only targeting the homeowner will not change the situation,” Tong said. “They will not be reported by the families, because they have to choose between living in their current condition or becoming homeless.” She believes illegal home conversions are a major issue, but cautions that “the presence of minorities in an area does not mean all of them are living in illegally converted homes.”

Jeanine Bardo, a Catholic school teacher in Dyker Heights, is sensitive to the racial tensions but feels they are not the heart of the problem. “It’s like a complete land grab,” Bardo said. “You know, this used to be a neighborhood where you could, as a middle class family, come and buy a house; now it’s completely impossible, because the houses are double the price. There’s no doubt that people are racist, it exists. But I always hear it when there’s an argument against what’s being done.”

 

Bob Cassarra listens to an attendee of the town hall on illegal home conversions. (Rebekah Ward/The Brooklyn Ink)

Walking down his own block, a few streets from the latest vacated property, Cassara narrated the signs of a silent battle waged along the residential street. He has lived on this road since childhood. His adult sons now live in his first home, while he occupies one down the block. He knows the rows of houses inside and out, and would like to keep it that way.

“You see those American flags? Those are neighbors who are upset about what’s happening,” Cassara said. He signaled to the red, white and blue fabric waving in the wind. Then, he pointed out a few recently renovated homes. “You can tell,” he said of the conversions. They often have bars on the windows, extra gas meters, windows downsized to accommodate new interior walls. But regardless of these signals, changing a house’s layout does not necessarily make it an illegal conversion, even if the gutting and reconstruction is done without the proper permits. Construction penalties are generally smaller, and as long as the changes could legally be done to a single or double family home, the plans themselves are deemed lawful by the city.

Cassara does not think that the new legislation, which targets cases of “aggravated illegal home conversions” – converted homes with 3 or more units beyond the certificate of occupancy – will change the main issue the Department of Buildings faces when investigating illegal conversions: access. And he may be right. As the Department’s spokesperson Andrew Rudansky made clear, since any citizen can submit a 311 complaint which Department officials would have to follow up, they have an ethical dilemma when investigating homes as well as a legal one. They can’t barge into a person’s house without a warrant, and they wouldn’t want to. Though this law does, as Gentile has pointed out, increase their ability to petition for access, they would first need to determine probable cause: too many doorbells, mail boxes, gas meters; strong signs that a house has too many families living inside. But what of a home like 1317 73rd street, a four-family that once housed two more, with no doorbell and only two mail boxes?

Rudansky didn’t have much to say on Local Law 94 itself. In spite of its taking effect September 30, he said the department was still reviewing the legislation, determining the most effective way to implement it. The law has three major components: it dramatically hikes the fines that can be levied against aggravated illegal conversions, allows for a tax lien on uncooperative property owners to collect unpaid fines, and compels officials to obtain an access warrant for suspected conversions if they are not able to get in by knocking on doors. The issue of access may be the law’s most contentious piece. While proponents point to the fact that the department has struggled to get inside of many of the homes they suspect are illegally converted, Rudansky noted that barging into residential homes uninvited is not a precedent they would eagerly set.

Cassara and his collaborators at Community Board 10 are hoping for something very specific. They want legislation or enforcement officers to find a way to stop the gutting of neighborhood homes before they are renovated and packed with tenants. “The buyers make this Frankenstein out of the houses,” Cassara said. But as it stands, the department does not assume that new interior renovation in the neighborhood is done for an illegal conversion before there is the occupancy to prove it. And though fines might be issued for construction without the correct permits, Cassara has watched many sites continue their work to completion in spite of a stop work order or a debt to the city. Then, sometimes, the Department of Buildings catches something illegal and either asks the owners to fix it, or – very occasionally – finds its conditions hazardous and serves a vacate notice, designating the Red Cross to help residents find alternative housing. “But it’s always after the fact, after the conversions,” Cassara said.

For Gentile, the ideal result of the law will be for the department to use the tools it provides to severely curtail, if not eliminate aggravated conversions. In response to doubts on its implementation, he was clear – like his colleague Brannan during the primary debate – that the department first needed the space to try. “We’ve got to give them the opportunity to get their act together,” he said. Community activists may be less optimistic than their council member, but they’ll all be watching closely. 

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