By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The troubling practice of gutting one and two-family homes and constructing multiple units is becoming an epidemic in Bay Ridge and other southwest Brooklyn neighborhoods, according to Councilmember Vincent Gentile, who called together top-level city officials to begin formulating a plan to stop it.
In an attempt to crack down on the illegal house conversions, Gentile met with officials from the mayor’s office, Borough President Eric Adams’ office, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s office, representatives from the Department of Buildings, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and Community Board 10 District Manager Josephine Beckmann to discuss putting together a comprehensive plan.
“Success will require a multi-pronged approach with vigilance and aggressiveness from all angles – big and small. To that end, while we’re working on a comprehensive approach to address the widespread practice of illegally converting one- and two-family homes, we’re also going to aggressively target noted bad actors with a history of dividing up these homes into many small illegal units,” Gentile said.
The problem is acute, according to Bay Ridge officials. When a one or two-family home is converted into an apartment building with four or in some cases six units, it means that more residents can live in the building. As a result, a building that originally housed a single amily or two families can now house more than 20 people.
“The growing number of illegal residential conversions within our community is a complex problem. Illegal conversions are quickly increasing the density of our community greatly impacting public services and putting those who live in illegal subdivisions at risk,” said Josephine Beckmann, district manager of Community Board 10 in Bay Ridge.
Beckmann said the board’s Zoning and Land Use Committee has held several meetings with local residents in an attempt to review the complex issue. She expressed relief that the city is getting involved. “I was pleased to be part of this important meeting hosted by Councilman Gentile where the issue was presented directly to the mayor and speaker’s office as well as city agency leaders in an effort to begin to develop legislative and enforcement solutions,” she said.
Meanwhile, Gentile has introduced legislation to allow the Dept. of Buildings to use circumstantial evidence when determining if a building has been illegally converted.
Gentile’s bill would allow building inspectors who couldn't gain access to cite a building owner if there was circumstantial evidence of illegal conversion, such as an excessive number of HVAC units, air ducts, entrances and exits or utility connections, to be able to gain access.
The bill has been assigned to the Council’s Committee on Housing and Buildings.
Part of the problem, according to Gentile is that contractors often submit false floor plans to the Dept. of Buildings, making it appear as if they are doing minor renovations to the interior of a building when they are really gutting the whole structure.
But because they don’t touch the exterior, the building still looks like a one-family home from the street.
The problem is particularly bad on Bay Ridge Parkway, according to Bob Cassara, a longtime resident. “The house down the street from me, a beautiful house, was sold for $1 million. They got permits from the city for minor renovations and then they totally gutted it from stem to stern. That doesn't sound like a minor renovation to me,” Cassara told the Brooklyn Eagle in June.
Adams said he is on board with Gentile’s effort. “Bad actor developers, architects and contractors that illegally convert and subdivide homes, knowingly submitting building plans that misrepresent intentions, are impacting public safety and public resources in a troubling way,” he said.
“I appreciate that the city is lending its expertise to strategize how to aggressively crack down on these actions, and my office is committed to working with all of our partners in government and our civic watchdogs to address these rogue development practices,” Adams said.
“Illegal conversions not only permanently change the contextual nature of our neighborhoods, but illegal units are unsafe for inhabitants and put tremendous strains on our local infrastructure, particularly our schools, which are overcrowded to begin with,” Gentile said.