In areas like Sunset Park, many residents have noticed multiple families or individuals living illegally in one residence.
One of the fears that has already become a reality with these illegal SROs is the death of firefighters who become trapped when homes are divided using illegal walls or locks on interior doors.
In the spring and summer of 2011, firefighters were seriously injured as a result of a burning building being illegally converted, according to Michael Flowers director of the Mayor’s Financial Crime Task Force, at a Community Board 7 forum Monday night on the subject.
The city has been working with the Fire and Buildings departments to crack down on illegally converted buildings. Currently, standard procedure is to have a city or building official respond to a complaint made by a local resident.
However, according to Flowers this method has become less fruitful as people are exercising their rights to refuse a building inspector into their residence without a warrant.
“Access becomes difficult in a lot of ways,” said Flowers. “Every New Yorker has a Fourth Amendment right to tell a government inspector to go away.
“What we found was that when a Department of Buildings inspector was paired with a member of the Fire Department,” Flowers continued, “it had a dramatic psychological impact on whether or not someone would open the door.”
He went on to say that building inspectors gain access to the buildings roughly 75 percent of the time when a fire official is present.
Jackie del Valle of the 5th Avenue Committee has experience fighting an illegally converted hotel. However, she warned the community that not all of the SROs are illegal.
“In my experience, SROs are affordable housing that has been around for a long time, and most of the time when I hear about illegal conversion it’s because the landlord is trying to kick out the tenants,” she said.
Valle said that in her experience it is the landlord who is looking to make more money by illegally converting these residences.
In response, one resident asked what options are open to those who are forced to vacate a building that has been illegally converted. Officials said that the Red Cross comes in and pays for a hotel stay for a few days. Following that, the former tenants are brought to a shelter where city workers help them find a new home.
Fred Xuereb, Chair of CB7 spoke at the forum and said,
“We’re not here to hurt people,” said Fred Xuereb, chair of CB7. “Landlords buy a house, they gut it out and subdivide the apartments. Sometimes they do it legally in the beginning and after the Buildings Department checks them out, they make the conversion.”
Xuereb said he wouldn’t want to see anyone forced to vacate their home, but he is afraid that firefighters will get hurt if they respond to a fire in one of these illegally converted buildings.
One resident of Sunset Park said she believes there are eight homes that are illegal SROs.
“These all have absentee landlords, and they are constantly changing transients coming in and out,” she said.
She said she has multiple complaints open with the city. “I don’t see that you’re doing anything about it,” she said.