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For Immediate Release:
November 10, 2011

BUILDINGS COMMISSIONER ROBERT LIMANDRI ANNOUNCES CITYWIDE EDUCATIONAL CAMPAIGN TO REMIND NEW YORKERS ABOUT THE DANGERS OF ILLEGAL CONVERSIONS

 More than 150,000 Flyers Distributed since 2009 as Part of the Department’s New
Enforcement and Educational Approach to Combat Illegal Conversions

10,000 Flyers to Be Distributed Citywide in November Including 10 Tips on How to Identify an Illegal Converted Apartment

Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri today announced the citywide distribution of educational flyers warning New Yorkers about the dangers of illegally converted apartments. Illegal dwellings pose a serious threat to tenants, neighbors and first responders, and since November 2009, the Department has distributed more than 150,000 flyers in English and 10 other languages to remind residents and property owners of the serious consequences of living in or creating illegal living conditions. This month, the Department will be distributing an additional 10,000 flyers at transportation hubs across the City. This awareness campaign was launched after a tragic fire broke out in an illegal cellar apartment in Woodside, Queens, on November 7, 2009, when three men lost their lives. As a part of the campaign, Department inspectors and community liaisons have handed out flyers at major transportation hubs throughout the City and targeted neighborhoods where the most illegal conversion complaints are generated. 

Led by our Community Affairs Unit, this campaign is part of the Department’s new enforcement and educational approach to combat illegal apartments. In 2010, Department investigators launched an undercover operation to search online rental apartment listings and pose as potential tenants to gain access and inspect the properties. Since then, more than 146 properties have been targeted, and 86% of those were issued violations for illegal conditions, including illegal construction, plumbing and electrical work. In June, the Department also joined with the City’s Fire Department, Housing and Preservation Department and the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement to create a multi-agency task force designed to identify high-risk illegal conversions, conduct joint-agency inspections and take appropriate action to address dangerous conditions. 

“Illegal conversions can kill – and we’re doing everything we can to make sure New Yorkers understand that,” said Commissioner LiMandri. “This educational and enforcement approach is designed to raise awareness about the risks of living in an illegal apartment or creating one to make a profit. Despite the tough economic times, there is no excuse for putting people’s lives in danger in order to pad your wallet, and our new initiatives seek to hold these property owners accountable. As a tenant, you must remember that if an apartment deal is too good to be true, it probably is.”

“Never underestimate the power of information,” said Deputy Commissioner of Enforcement Eugene Corcoran. “By arming New Yorkers with tools they need to make better decisions, this educational campaign will save lives, and our increased enforcement will remind property owners that there are consequences for gambling with the safety of the public. No matter where you live, basic safety measures must be followed.”           

In 2010, the Department issued 1,295 vacate orders related to illegal dwellings, a 25% increase from the previous year. Illegal conversions are building units that have been altered to create additional housing without obtaining proper approvals from the Department of Buildings. These units often lack adequate means of egress, proper windows and ventilation and have illegal and unsafe gas, electrical and plumbing systems. The flyers include safety tips such as the need for two means of egress, a working smoke alarm and carbon monoxide detector and the dangers of using an extension cord as a main source of electricity. 

As part of this effort to raise awareness about the dangers of illegal conversions, the Department has issued 10 tips for New Yorkers who are searching for apartments in the City and may encounter these situations and/or conditions. The following tips may be indicators that an apartment could be illegally converted: 

1) Know the market. Be wary of units that advertise significantly lower price points for comparable apartments in the area.

2) Beware of the words “basement” or “attic.” Advertisements that use these words are often for apartments that typically lack adequate exits.

3) Avoid apartments that have rooms without windows or very small windows. These are often found in illegal cellar or basement apartments. Landlords will sometimes describe the ones with very small windows as “sunny” to entice renters.

4) Beware of the word “flex.” “Flex” implies that the apartment can be converted into a multi-bedroom unit using pressurized walls. The installation and/or construction of a wall without proper permits are illegal. 

5) “Utilities included” is a red flag. A landlord may not want utilities under another name connected to the property because those residents would violate the legal occupancy of the building. 

6) Avoid apartments with odd layouts. They are often described as “unique” or “interesting” and are oddly situated (i.e. a shower installed in the kitchen).

7) Be cautious when a landlord refuses to disclose the exact address. Landlords advertising illegal apartments may ask to meet a potential renter before exposing the address to possible regulation or penalty.

8) Beware of apartments where you can’t have mail delivered. Landlords advertising illegal apartments will often request that tenants obtain a separate P.O. Box. 

9) Beware of no-lease apartments. Be suspicious of a landlord who declines to draw up a lease, requests a month-to-month agreement or requires cash payments. 

10) Check for adequate means of egress and look out for locked doors in the unit. A tenant should be able to access all available exits either directly from the unit or a public hallway. 

For more information about the dangers of illegal conversions, please visit www.nyc.gov/buildings.

Contact:     Tony Sclafani/Jen Gilbert (212) 566-3473
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