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Dob Struggles with Illegal Conversions: Comptroller

Liu Says Audit’s Results ‘Disturbing’

The city’s Department of Buildings (DOB) is having a tough time cracking down on illegally subdivided apartments-especially in Queens-according to an audit published by the City Comptroller’s office.

As described in the audit, the DOB has continually diminished in its ability to enter buildings that are suspected of violating fire safety rules, according to the comptroller’s report. Even as warrant applications have increased, it noted, following through on enforcement has lagged behind.

The audit found from July 2010 to June 2011, the DOB’s Queens unit was unable to enter properties 80 percent of the time it suspected a problem. This was nearly a 40 percent increase from what an audit in 2009 found.

“How do you explain such an increase? They can give any excuse they want but that’s 40 percent,” said City Comptroller John Liu.

The conversions can be dangerous, sometimes deadly, when fires break out.

“We were just simply doing a routine follow-up and not only have they not improved, but things have gotten far worse,” Liu added. “It’s shocking and disturbing.”

Liu said the problem worsened since a 2009 audit uncovered lax enforcement and he fully expected that there would be improvements.

Auditors noted that DOB can obtain warrants from a judge to force landlords to open up, and the buildings department did hike the number of warrant requests from 13 in 2008 to 80 in 2011. But that was still only 1.4 percent of the 5,577 cases where inspectors responding to complaints couldn’t get inside the location in question in 2010-11.

Auditors also found that when DOB was able to gain access and cited a landlord for an illegal unit, the agency inconsistently followed up to see if that apartment was later reoccupied.

A spokesman for the buildings department said, the department “has aggressively targeted illegal apartments most at-risk for fire-with a vacate rate nearly five times greater than before.”

An illegal conversion is classified as a Priority B (non-emergency) complaint. The department must inspect within 40 days of receiving the complaint.

The auditors reccommended that the department switch up the times it makes a second attempt to inspect a property after a first failure because there has been some increased success when this happens.

“The Department has also launched undercover investigations to successfully target illegal apartments for rent, coordinated citywide educational campaigns to warn tenants about the dangers of an illegal unit and joined a citywide task force to inspect illegal dwellings,” the spokesperson added.

But Liu, citing the audit’s findings, said it’s far from being enough.

“This is an agency that is so dysfunctional on so many levels,” he added.

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