In Our Opinion
Nov 11, 2009 | 2827 views | 0 0 comments | 46 46 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Living in an illegally converted home for a civic-minded person in Queens is rare, but living on a block that has more than a half-dozen illegally converted homes is as common as cream cheese on a bagel. It’s just that few with any kind of influence to change this growing trend will admit to its truth.

Basements are converted to apartments, single-family homes shared by three families or more, or in the case of the fire on 65th Street in Woodside this past Saturday morning, entire floors of homes are converted to a bunch of single-occupancy rooms.

This trend has been growing for a decade or longer, and more homes are being transformed every day. It’s easy: you just go to Home Depot, pick up some wood studs, sheet rock, a door, a few dozen screws, a hollow wood door, a portable heater and your done. A few hundred dollars of monthly income with only a few thousands watts of electricity being used.

In 1997, an illegally converted boarding house in western Maspeth was the scene of an electrical fire that killed four people and injured nearly two dozen.

The Queens task force created to look at the problem is missing the point.

The enforcement options against those who violate the housing and zoning law have no teeth, so landlords will continue to convert. Violations and Environmental Control Board hearings are sent through a maze of red tape and landlords know they just have to wait it out, adjourn the hearings, and settle on a small fine without solving the problem. It’s quite a joke to those who have to go through it.

How many more people have to die before a task force is given some authority to have buildings vacated, torn down, and the most egregious violators punished?

There is currently a home on 79th Place in Glendale that members of Community Board 5 in Queens have been discussing. The owners applied for legalization of a home which was self-certified by an architect, but was built far beyond what the zoning allows there.

Multiple families live in the building, and the board’s Zoning Committee was recently forced to delve into the unfamiliar task of sending a strong message to the Buildings Department, Borough President’s Office, and the local legislative representatives fearing for the safety of the families living inside.

“We are familiar with handling zoning issues,” said Mike Hetzer, an attorney who is a member of the Zoning Committee, “but we now have to fear for the safety of the people living inside?"

Addressing this issue, which goes far beyond the borders of Queens and affects the entire city, must be the highest priority of our newly elected City Council members. It’s a matter of life and death.

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