New DOB unit wants you to be able to spot an illegally converted apartment

At 216 Third Avenue, the FDNY found signs of illegal conversion from a two-family building to a four-family one. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Renting an apartment in New York can be a nightmare, but the Department of Buildings wants to help prospective tenants identify shady situations before making a commitment to a new home.

The Quality of Life unit in the Department of Buildings focuses primarily on the illegal conversion of apartments, which often happens when building owners make changes to an apartment and list the place on AirBnB, and the shoddy workmanship can end up being hazardous to tenants. The main concern with illegal conversions and the reason for the DOB’s crackdown is safety, spokesperson Abigail Kunitz said.

“We want to make sure that people have a safe place to live,” she said. “With illegal gas and electrical work, we want to prevent a situation that causes tragedies like the East Village gas explosion. Especially when housing is scarce, we want to make sure that it’s safe.”

Although the Quality of Life unit doesn’t deal with issues related to illegal gas and electrical work, owners may often overlook fire exits when renovating an apartment and failing to maintain two means of egress, which is considered a serious safety issue and one that the QOL unit would address.

The DOB has launched a “Living Safely” campaign to help prospective renters identify an illegal conversion before ever moving into the apartment. If the DOB finds that the situation is immediately hazardous, like if an owner renovated an apartment and the unit no longer has two means of egress, the agency would issue a vacate order and tenants would be forced to leave, but the city works with the Red Cross to offer relocation assistance so residents have help. Either way, Kunitz said that issuing a vacate order is a last resort.

“If there are two exits but there’s a partition wall, we wouldn’t necessarily issue a vacate order,” she said. “It would be a violation and the DOB would give the owner an opportunity to rectify the situation.”

A complaint was filed against 222 East 31st Street about a possible illegal conversion, and Inspector Listoriel Vasquez found during a recent inspection that the medical office on the first floor of the building was not up to code. The issue in this particular building was unrelated to the number of exits, Vasquez said, and was more about the building’s use, since there are different rules for medical offices, such as a requirement for sprinklers, as well as regular offices versus dwelling units.

“Offices don’t need to meet all the codes as if it’s classified as a dwelling unit,” Kunitz said, also noting that it’s important for the documentation on the building to match what it’s actually being used for. “If there’s an emergency and responders look at the Certificate of Occupancy and see that it’s an office space (as opposed to a dwelling), their response will be different.”

The FDNY recently requested an inspection at 216 Third Avenue in Gramercy because it appeared that a legal two-family building had been converted into an illegal four-family building with no registration from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and Vasquez attempted to investigate this matter as well earlier this month.

During the recent inspection, no one was available at the building to grant Vasquez access to the units, but even without seeing inside the apartments, Vasquez noticed signs of a possible illegal conversion in the building that residents can look out for.

“There are four mailboxes in front of the building, which is a good indicator that it’s an illegal conversion (since the building only has two legal apartments),” Vasquez said. “One of the ways that owners can operate an Airbnb is a Master Lock box so they can leave the keys (for short term guests), so that’s another indicator.”

Vasquez said the most efficient way for tenants to file a complaint is through 311, but inspections can be prompted by various city agencies as well.

“FDNY can also request an inspection to a location,” Vasquez said, “and there are interagency requests like from HPD or the Health Department if they observe something that seems off.”

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