Today’s news:

The Civic Scene: DOB must step up crackdown on illegally converted apts.

Three more people died in illegal apartments in the Bronx. A few years ago, there were the deaths of two firefighters who were trapped in a maze of illegal rooms in the Bronx. Regretfully, like the Triangle Shirtwaist fire 100 years ago, no one was punished for the deaths and injuries.

The recent tragedy is similar to past tragedies. Someone divided up apartments into one-room occupancies. The city Department of Buildings had been informed that there were illegal conversions. The DOB had come to the building, but could not gain entry. The original owner had abandoned the building because there were too many violations. The bank which held the mortgage did not care.

A 12-year-old and his parents had decided to live in the subdivided apartment because it was cheap. It has not been made clear who subdivided the apartment and was collecting the rent. The fire escape in this apartment had been blocked by illegal rooms. This type of problem has been going on for years, but the DOB and city have not figured out how to solve the problem.

Neighbors had complained there was an illegal conversion in the building. Nearby homeowners feared for their properties. Under DOB policy, after two attempts to gain admission, it closes the case. Of course, people can complain as often as they want, but the results will be the same on entry by the DOB. The FDNY gained admission in 2009 because it has the power to enter a building if there is the danger of a fire.

The problem the DOB faces is that private property is considered sacred. Police officers can enter a house if they are in pursuit of criminals as can firefighters if there is the danger of a fire, but private property is private.

Civic association leaders have been trying to find ways to let DOB inspectors enter a house to look for illegal conversions and dangerous conditions, but there is no simple solution. If a neighbor wants to sign an affidavit that there are illegal apartments, a judge might grant a search warrant. But some builders or building owners might sue neighbors if they sign an affidavit and civic associations do not want to get involved in a court battle with a builder who may have a lawyer on retainer.

Some community board managers have offered to sign these affidavits if the city will provide legal coverage for them, but the City Council has not figured out a way to provide it. With no legal protection, only a few angry or concerned homeowners or civic associations dare to turn in illegal building activities. Another problem is that if the owner is convicted and pays a fine, it may be only $5,000, which is nothing considering the amount of money an owner can make.

The Council is planning a hearing in June. In the meantime, builders and greedy developers illegally convert one building at a time, on one block at a time until whole neighborhoods are changed. One has to understand that the many illegal aliens need cheap places to live so they will live in these dangerous buildings and not complain because they are illegal.

The DOB is attempting to stop people from renting illegal rooms by using a brochure which they give out at subway stops warning people of the danger of illegal rooms in basements and attics, which are locked.

GOOD AND BAD NEWS OF THE WEEK: It is fitting that universities and hospitals be built to provide services to the people of our city, but too often these community facilities decide that they have to grow gigantic to better serve the people and instead destroy the quality of life which urbanites enjoy.

New York University has decided it must grow. It has a 25-year expansion plan which seeks to add 2.2 million feet of buildings around Washington Square Park. Fighting for their quality of life is the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

The GVSHP has galvanized the community, attended community board meetings, petitioned the city Landmarks Preservation Commission and their local legislators. NYU had wanted to build a 40-story hotel/residence on Bleecker Street in the Village, but under pressure withdrew the proposal. Now they want to change the zoning laws to eliminate open space requirements. The state Historic Preservation Office has just ruled that Washington Square qualifies for the state and national Registry of Historic Places.

We in Queens have to be aware of these attempted land grabs in Manhattan and watch for any such attempts in Queens.

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