The Civic Scene: DOB must crack down harder on illegal housing in Queens

By Bob Harris

About two weeks after state Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose) complained about St. John’s University students living illegally in 11 houses in Jamaica Estates and Fresh Meadows, three men died when a fire trapped them in rooms in an illegally converted basement where they were living in a Woodside home. Padavan had complained to city Department of Buildings Commissioner Ira Gluckman that the houses in Jamaica Estates and Fresh Meadows had been illegally occupied for years by college students.

Padavan had been alerted by residents that about 100 youngsters, mostly SJU students, had held a party last September that caused so much noise community residents were terrified. Drunkenness and rowdiness are not what residents expect.

The city Building Code states that no more than three unrelated people are supposed to live in a house. Speculators often permit five to seven students to rent a house. Some probably build illegal rooms so they can hold more students and make more money. The results are occasional loud parties, trash all over the area, extra cars and the property left disreputable.

Some of these houses have been rented out to students for years and are known to the community, but due to the way the law operates building inspectors have not been able to enforce the Building Code. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens against unlawful searches and seizures.

If a neighbor, civic association president or zoning chairperson wants to sign an affidavit stating there are illegal rooms, inspectors can enter but people do not want to sign such a statement because the owner may sue them. Some community board managers had wanted to be able to sign such affidavits, but the city could not guarantee who would represent them if the owner sued.

If one sees five or six names on a mailbox, that may mean there are a number of unrelated people living there. Five cars may also be probable cause as well as several garbage or recycling cans. An observation of the property could ascertain that a number of irresponsible people were living there. The way the property looks could give a clue to the fact that it is a rented property by young people who do not take care of it.

On Nov. 7, a fire tore through basement rooms in a house in Woodside. Three tenants died. The basement had been subdivided into four illegal rooms. Three others survived, but one was badly burned. There was no outside exit for those living in the basement.

The DOB evacuated another house next door to the one which had the fire because of illegal rooms. It took three people being killed and another badly burned for there to be probable cause to enter the house next door to the one that had the fire.

Fires take place in illegally converted houses every few years in Queens. These fires also threaten nearby houses. Even if there is the legal 8 feet to the end of the property, sparks from a fire can threaten nearby houses. Some people put in faulty electrical wiring or there is no way for occupants of the basement or upstairs rooms to evacuate easily. It is important we make sure the house nearby has been built up to code so a problem does not spread to our houses. The reason so many people build illegal rooms is because there are many illegal immigrants in Queens.

Sometimes DOB inspectors visit the house when students are on vacation, so the owner lets them in because there is no evidence of more than three students living there. If there are illegal partitions, the owner will not let the inspectors enter the building. The way the DOB operates is that if it cannot gain entrance two times in a row, the file is closed. But closing the file does not solve the problem — it just hides it until a tragedy brings it into daylight again.

All this is happening in residential neighborhoods not zoned for apartment or rooming houses. The legal residents bought their houses as a place to raise a family and have a nice place to live.

GOOD AND BAD NEWS OF THE WEEK: There was a change from analog to digital TV broadcasting. This is supposed to provide a better picture. But it seems in some areas the signal cannot be picked up.

Our federal government paid for the cost of converter boxes. Those who have cable had no problem, but we pay for cable. It is said the new system is clearer, but there have been no studies. Our picture shuts down completely. Last week the cable company finally changed the cable box, saying that was the problem.

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