DOB must crack down on illegal apartment conversions

By Bob Harris

Justice was slow, but the owner and partner⁄manager of a Bronx apartment house were convicted of permitting tenants to carve illegal rooms out of their apartments, creating a maze which caused the deaths of two firefighters on Jan. 25, 2005.

Illegal rooms have bothered residents all over the city for years. This fire was caused by a faulty extension cord. Tragically, the city Department of Buildings has never been able to put a handle on the practice of building illegal rooms. This is the first high−profile case to bring the practice of illegal conversions front and center.

Civic leaders have begged the DOB to stop owners from putting in illegal rooms, which are not only dangerous, but cause overcrowding and lower the quality of life in a community.

Back on Jan. 25, 2005, firefighters were called to fight a fire on the fourth floor of the Bronx building. In the apartments, the tenants had built partitions to create illegal rooms, which they rented out to make money. Some of these rooms had no windows and some no access to fire escapes.

Five firefighters became disoriented in the smoke and were forced to jump out of the window in the room where they were trapped onto the concrete courtyard below. Lt. Curtis Meyran and Fireman John Bellew died and three were badly injured.

There were two jury trials, one against the tenants who built the walls and one against the owner and partner⁄manager of the apartment house. The defense argued that freezing weather that day hampered the flow of water to the hoses, there was a lack of communication and the FDNY had stopped issuing firefighters ropes, which could be used to slide down.

One jury acquitted the two tenants who built the partitions, but the other jury found the owners guilty of criminally negligent homicide and reckless endangerment.

Since the original fire, firefighters have developed new fire resistant ropes, which have been approved for use and issued. I wonder if the FDNY has figured out how to make the radios used by firefighters compatible with the radios used by the police and usable in high−rise buildings and subway tunnels.

For years, this column has echoed the cry of residents who want the DOB to better regulate illegal partitions and rooms. We have called for the high−profile prosecution of illegal construction from the safety aspect and an aesthetic view. Hopefully, this case has convinced some people not to do illegal things and the DOB and legislators to figure out more ways to gain entrance to apartments or houses which might have illegal construction.

Of course, we will have to wait and see if there is jail time and whether fines are paid in this case.

This column has mentioned several times that houses opposite St. John’s University on 170th Street in Fresh Meadows had bunches of little illegal basement rooms rented out to students. If they are still there, they represent a potential fire hazard and catastrophe in the making.

GOOD AND BAD NEWS OF THE WEEK: I just learned of another fraud case of a speculator who may have bilked investors of $8 billion. He owns a bank in Antigua, which had a reputation of being a haven for money. This Ponzi scheme plus the $50 billion Madoff allegedly stole and others being mentioned means there have been too few or no checks on people investing money for other people and promising unreasonably high returns.

It seems the Bush administration had permitted the regulations which would have caught these crooks to lapse all in the name of getting the government out of the lives of people.

We are now watching the Security and Exchange Commission and FBI investigate these wrongdoings and getting more involved in our lives. I also read that the FBI is investigating people who hid lots of money in Swiss banks so they would not have to pay taxes.

Hopefully, more people who hide their money will be caught and have to pay their fair share of taxes so our governments can pay for the services we want and need. We all have to pay a fair share of our income so we can have necessary services.