Candidates vying for the city council seat in the 43rd district argued solutions to remedy illegal home conversions at a Dyker Heights town hall last Wednesday.
Democrats Vincent Chirico, Justin Brannan, the Rev. Khader El-Yateem, Nancy Tong and Kevin Peter Carroll debated each other and their Republican adversaries, John Quaglione, Liam McCabe and Bob Capano in front of 150 residents packed into a Knights of Columbus meeting room, 1305 86th St.
The illegal home conversion crisis was the sole topic discussed –– an issue believed to be responsible for the district’s school overcrowding, increasingly littered streets and inflated property valuations. The Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance (BHPA) co-sponsored the event, a non-profit company credited as the sole, grassroots organization campaigning to end illegal home conversions in the area.
“Between 2000 and 2015 there was a 30 percent population increase in certain areas of Dyker Heights,” said Bob Cassara, founder and president of the BHPA.
“Illegal conversions are a direct result of this population increase, coupled with the lack of new construction due to the current zoning laws. These conversions have dramatically changed the character, the quality of life, and affordability of a formerly well-rounded middle-class neighborhood,” added Cassara.
Yet when one candidate, Tong, suggested affordable housing to manage the crisis of illegal home conversions, attendees responded unfavorably with one crowd member yelling, “They don’t speak English!”
Residents responded similarly during a past debate nearly a month ago. This time Fran Vella-Marrone, president of the Dyker Heights Civic Association, who fielded questions to the candidates, addressed the disruption requesting audience members be respectful despite disagreeing with a candidate’s view.
Many occupants inhabiting illegal home conversions are members of the district’s growing Asian community. The Department of City Planning reported between 2007 and 2011, 9.5 percent of new Chinese immigrants to the city settled in Bensonhurst, surpassing neighborhoods such as Chinatown, Sunset Park and Flushing, all of which are more densely populated.
According to the website, Census Reporter, in 2015 the district housed over 310,000 residents with Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights drawing a 52 to 26 percent, white to Asian ratio. Neighboring Bensonhurst and Bath Beach ethnic disparities were less sparse with 45 percent white, 29 percent Asian and 15 percent Hispanic residents in the same year.
McCabe promoted a more enforcement-driven approach as he read his new 15-point-plan to combat illegal home conversions. This included, auditing and investigating the Department of Buildings (DOB) and expanding its marshal’s unit, reclassifying type-A violations to support a same-day response time and the reforming of the EB-5 Visa program, which was enacted to stimulate the economy through job creation and capital investment by foreign investors.
In May, incumbent City Councilmember Vincent Gentile sponsored a bill to curb illegal home conversions. The bill, which will go into effect later this month, imposes fines up to $15,000 to violating landlords and enables the DOB access, via a warrant, to the property of suspected violators –– a point Brannan made in response to opponents’ call for increased legislation on the issue.
“Sept. 30 is when the aggravated illegal conversion bill will actually go into effect,” said Brannan who said he helped to write the bill. “So we need to see what happens here. If the city is not enforcing the law, then we have to number one make sure that they are enforcing the law, because if we’re writing bills and throwing them away then it doesn’t mean anything.”
Brannan also suggested seizing assets to further discourage “greedy landlords” from converting homes.
Community Board 10 District Manager Josephine Beckmann provided data showing a slight dip in residents’ complaints on illegal home conversions from 2014 to 2015, the same year the BHPA began its campaign. But the numbers spiked the following year increasing nearly 20 percent. As of August 1, CB 10 has reported 301 complaints on the matter.
El-Yateem blamed DOB for unlawfully providing permits and utility companies for aiding landlords with illegal home conversions.
“[There’s a problem] when Con Edison and National Grid come [to install] six meters in a one-family or two-family building,” said El-Yateem. “So sometimes the system is part of the problem.”
Quaglione attacked building code logistics, proposing to change the requirements of bedroom sizes to nine feet, therefore pushing offenders out of compliance. The candidate also suggested easier methods to notify authorities of violators.
When Vella-Marrone asked candidates if the Department of Education should supply the number of students residing at each address, candidates were split down party lines. Republicans agreed with the idea, with Capano pointing out that illegal home conversions and sanctuary city policies contribute to the overcrowding of schools.
“I’m pretty tired of more of our tax dollars going to those who are here illegally, when we have to work second jobs and long hours to make ends meet,” said Capano.
Democrats opposed the idea with Chirico noting that school teachers and administrators are inundated managing overcrowded classes while Carroll warned of an impending dropout rate for fear of either being evicted or facing deportation.
“I want a child who goes to school to feel safe when they go there,” said Carroll.