By Connor Adams Sheets
Thousands of homes in Flushing, Whitestone and other northeast Queens neighborhoods have been targeted by one or more companies running a scam in which they made 311 calls reporting entire blocks of homeowners for housing violations, according to city Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside).
The problem is that most of the complaints, which usually alleged that the basements of the homes had been illegally converted to house extra occupants, were unfounded and wasted city resources when city Department of Buildings inspectors went to inspect the homes and found nothing amiss, Avella and other officials said.
Inspections, which resulted in fines or violations often penalized residents with what Avella described as “petty” concerns, such as having a half-bathroom installed in the unoccupied basement of a single-family personal home.
Several days after the complaints were made, a company or number of companies, which the city will not identify because of an ongoing investigation, left fliers at the targeted homes advertising services to help homeowners found to be in violation of city codes fix their housing problems in order to avoid hefty fines, Avella said.
Those services include furniture moving and building, he said, and according to the New York Post, even extended to specifically include basement-legalization services.
“I said right away these are the people who are complaining,” Flushing resident Shirley Schachter, 45, who received a letter three days after getting a citation for a minor violation, told the Post. She was referring to the flier distributors.
A survey of 1,000 random homeowners in the area near Schachter’s home on 33rd Road in Flushing revealed that in seven days in September 500 identical allegations were made, sometimes even about vacant lots, according to the Post. Between October and December, every single even-numbered home on the block of 33rd Road between Murray Street and 153rd Street was slapped with a violation for illegal conversion, illegal occupancy or a similar problem, according to DOB records.
“Why should we be interfering with a homeowner when they’re using their basement properly for their own personal uses?” Avella said. “The issue is illegal occupancy, and that’s not what we’re talking about here. I’ve said this to the city before: There’s a fine line between legitimate complaints and harassment.”
Community Board 7 President Eugene Kelty said one of his main concerns is that calls taken through the 311 system are not automatically reported to local community boards and officials, and that anonymous reporting allows such abuses of the complaint system to occur.
“That’s one of our biggest battles with the system — that we aren’t getting notified,” he said. “With the 311 system, one of the disadvantages is I don’t think you should be able to be anonymous. … When you turn in an anonymous complaint, the problem is there’s no callback to verify that this guy is not doing it maliciously.”
DOB spokesman Tony Sclafani said he could not provide detailed information about the complaints because they are under investigation.
“The department is investigating these complaints. However, our inspectors have a duty to respond to every complaint regardless of how it comes in,” he said.
Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.