The city Department of Buildings is cracking down on illegal apartments in private homes.
The department is now looking at both the illegal apartments and sending undercover inspectors to realtors who advertise illegal apartments in basements and elsewhere with codewords such as “utilities included.”
The problem has become endemic in the east Bronx, with residents in Waterbury-LaSalle recently conducting a study that found 14 illegal apartments on just one block.
News of the crackdown came at a town hall meeting on zoning issues, hosted by the Waterbury-LaSalle Community Association on Thursday, May 9 when DOB director of community affairs Donald Ranshte spoke of the operation.
As part of an ongoing, larger education and enforcement effort, the DOB ran the sting operation on realtors and homeowners called Operation Danger Included from January to March in 2009 and 2010.
The realtors gave the undercover agents, posing as potential tenants, access to the apartments, with 76% found to be illegal.
“Illegal apartments typically contain illegal construction and electrical, and plumbing work,” said DOB spokesman Anthony Sclafani.
“These apartments can pose serious dangers to tenants, neighbors, and First Responders,” he said. “Of the 50 apartments, we issued vacate orders to 11 of those apartments where conditions posed an imminent safety risk.”
The problem of illegal apartments has grown in recent years, said Community Board 10 district manager Kenneth Kearns, with some unscrupulous landlords subdividing smaller and smaller spaces never designed for living.
“In these difficult economic times, people will try to achieve economic security and rent out their basement as an apartment,” said Kearns. “The fact that the city has a less than one percent vacancy rate is aiding this process. However, the community board would like everyone to know that the renting of an illegal apartment is very bad for the community in general.”
Potentially disastrous situations can occur if there is a fire, said Kearns, with firefighters often unaware of alterations made to buildings until it is too late.
Kearns said that the board is working with the City Council to push legislative solutions, possibly including laws that help the DOB gain access more easily to buildings.
“The Building Department before now has been hampered because the tenants have not been required to provide the inspectors with access,” said Kearns, adding that this forces the department to get a court order and then return with police.
“This is why we have so many illegal apartments,” he said. “The law needs to be addressed to give them access.”
WLCA board member Mary Jane Musano said she and the organization understand the economic stress many homeowners find themselves in, but the illegal apartments mean less parking spaces on local streets, and overburdening local schools and infrastructure.
“People will say ‘it helps me pay my mortgage,’” said Musano. “I hate to sound cruel, but there are a lot of people who are struggling along and trying to do the right thing.”
Musano said that some recently built two-family houses in the community have space that can be converted into an illegal third apartment, adding to concerns.
But one local real estate businessman, who asked not to be named, charged the city is talking out of both sides of its mouth.
“Years ago, they inspected new housing, and anything with a finished basement was declared part of a two-family home, which was taxed at that rate – real estate tax, water bill, etc.” he said. “They can’t have it both ways.”
In addition to illegal apartments, the WLCA town hall meeting on zoning highlighted the plight of Patty Justiniano and her family.
The Justiniano’s private house in Pelham Bay was all but walled in by a developer building an apartment house next door a foot away from their side windows. In mid-density zones, R-4 through R-7, this is allowed, no matter how unsightly.
Patrick Rocchio can be reach via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at (718) 742-3393