Updated 06/07/2011 09:45 PM
City Renews Crackdown On Illegal Apartments
City officials unveiled Tuesday a new way to save lives by monitoring buildings in risk of fire and catching landlords who add illegal conversions to their buildings. NY1's Michael Herzenberg filed the following report.
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Between 200,000 to 600,000 tenants may be living in illegally converted apartments in New York City. These buildings could be fire traps, but up until now trapping the building owners has proven illusive.
Two recent deadly fires brought the matter to foreground for the City Council. A 12-year-old boy and his parents died in a Bronx fire on April 25, as their illegally converted apartment made them unable to find a way to escape. Then on May 13, two adult men died in a Brooklyn fire caused by a hot plate in an illegally converted building.
Both involved buildings had a history of complaints and in both cases the city did not effectively respond to those complaints.
"We're not going to let people die because other people decided to break the law to make money, and because our city government has not hit the nail on the head to stop this lawless activity," said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
The City Council held an oversight hearing Tuesday afternoon after the mayor unveiled a new effort to combat illegal conversions and save lives.
A main problem is that landlords build walls illegally, which crowds people into apartments, and then they string extension chords that can start fires. The walls and the overcrowding can make finding an exit during a fire akin to stumbling through a dark maze.
"We can't get to every building -- the 900,000 buildings -- the 500 that we inspect, anyway," said Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano. "So it's important we get to the buildings that have the most critical possibility of having a fire."
The mayor formed a task force that found four high risk factors that cannot be ignored: prior complaints, foreclosure or tax lien on the property, a neighborhood with a history of dangerous fires and building construction before 1938.
"When you knock on the door, there is a uniformed fire department person standing there with the inspectors, and that, at least in the test case, seemed to convince people to open the door," said Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Four teams of inspectors from the New York City Fire Department and the Departments of Buildings and Housing Preservation and Development will inspect the newest high-risk 311 complaints each week.
Some City Council members said it is a good first step but said more should be done.
"The task force itself doesn't follow up on all complaints," said Bronx Councilman Oliver Koppell.
Lawmakers are working on what they call more comprehensive plans to catch illegal conversions and save lives.