Office of the Queens Borough President, New York City Local Government
   Queens Borough President, Helen M. Marshall  

HOUSING:
Illegal Conversions

Housing in Queens
Briarwood, Queens
Briarwood, Queens

The
Queens Borough President is committed to the twin goals of creating new affordable housing and to preserving and enhancing the existing housing stock.

Fighting Illegal Conversions:
A Comprehensive Guide for Communities

Published by the
Office of the Queens Borough President, Helen M. Marshall

Dear Concerned Citizen,

The problem of illegal apartment conversions is a persistent and pervasive one that places many of our residents in danger and puts tremendous strains on community resources.

Part of the reason for the proliferation of illegal apartments is that many homeowners and their tenants do not know what constitutes an illegal dwelling or how to seek remedies. This is why my office has published “Fighting Illegal Conversions: A Comprehensive Guide for Communities.” It is my hope that this guide will help everyone comply with the laws so that we can avoid lifethreatening and quality-of-life problems caused by illegal apartments.

My office is also taking a proactive approach to deal with illegal apartment conversions and to protect our homes and our families. We support the clarification and strengthening of the city’s Building Code; call for enhanced enforcement of the law, including giving the Department of Buildings more resources and inspectors and work with the court system to help the members of the judiciary rectify this problem; seek to coordinate enforcement efforts among various city and state agencies, and support legislation that would require buyers and sellers in real estate transactions to certify the residential status of any residence at closing and to affirm that it complies with the zoning laws. We have also asked electrical, gas and cable utilities to report excess services at particular
addresses.

We will continue to seek other solutions to the vexing problem of illegal apartment conversions. Meanwhile, I urge you all to read this guide, and if you have any questions or suggestions, please do not hesitate to contact my office at 1-718-286-3000.

HELEN M. MARSHALL
Queens Borough President


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ANSWERS TO COMMONLY ASKED QUESTIONS
An illegal apartment conversion is a serious offense under the New York City Building Code, and can result in fines up to $15,000 and up to one year in jail. This Guide has been prepared by the Office of the Queens Borough President, with the assistance of the NYC Department of Buildings, to help educate homeowners and tenants about the laws regulating illegal conversions.

WHAT IS AN ILLEGAL CONVERSION?
An illegal conversion is the creation of one or more additional dwelling units within a home without first receiving the approval of, and permits from, the NYC Department of Buildings. Such conversions often involve the alteration or modification of an existing one- family or two-family home by adding an apartment in the basement or attic. Sometimes several dwelling units are added to a home to create an illegal rooming house.

WHY DOES THE GOVERNMENT CARE WHAT I DO WITH MY PRIVATE HOME?
Government regulates all aspects of business and industry to preserve the health and safety of its citizens. Illegal conversions are frequently done in violation of existing fire and building codes, and constitute a significant danger to tenants and other individuals living in the buildings. In addition, fires that begin in homes with illegal apartments can easily spread to neighboring homes.

Illegal conversions also reduce the quality of life in our neighborhoods by crowding more people into an area than was originally intended. This unplanned growth causes a severe strain on municipal services, and frequently results in school overcrowding, reduced parking, understaffed police stations and increased sewer and sanitation problems.

IS EVERY APARTMENT ADDED TO A HOME ILLEGAL?
No. Depending upon the circumstances, it is sometimes permissible to
add an apartment to a home.

  • First, the building must be in an area which is zoned to allow additional dwelling units.
  • Second, the property lot and building size must meet the zoning requirements.
  • Third, you must obtain a building permit from the NYC Department of Buildings to add the new dwelling unit.

If you are considering adding an apartment to your home, you should first speak with a licensed architect or engineer, who will tell you if it is legal to do so based upon the applicable zoning in your area.

WHAT IS ZONING?
Zoning is a tool that regulates the use, density and type of structure that can be built on property within New York City. Every block and lot within the city limits is zoned for residential, commercial and/or industrial uses.

Residential zones range from R1 to R10; the “R” stands for “residential” and the number for the density (the higher the number, the higher the density allowed). Only single family detached homes are permitted in R1 and R2 districts. Other housing types are permitted in R3 - R10 zoned districts. Go to www.nyc.gov/buildings to check the zoning of your property.

IF I ALREADY HAVE AN ADDITIONAL DWELLING UNIT IN MY HOME, HOW DO I KNOW IF IT IS LEGAL?
If you added the apartment to your home without first getting a permit from the NYC Buildings Department, it is illegal, and you must either remove the apartment or seek to have it legalized. If the apartment already existed when you bought the home, you should check the Certificate of Occupancy for the building, or speak with a licensed architect or engineer. Downloadable C.O.’s may be obtained from the Building Information System (BIS) on www.nyc.gov/buildings.

I ADDED A FULL BATHROOM TO MY BASEMENT FOR MY OWN USE, BUT DID NOT GET A BUILDING PERMIT FIRST. IS THIS LEGAL?
No. Even if you do not intend to create a separate apartment to be rented to tenants, you can still be fined for adding a full bathroom or kitchen to your basement or attic -- or making other major alterations -- without first obtaining permission from the Department of Buildings.

HOW DO I REPORT AN ILLEGAL APARTMENT?
The NYC Department of Buildings is responsible for investigating complaints of illegal apartments. If you know of an illegal apartment in your area, you can file a complaint by calling 311. You can also call my office, your local community board or one of the elected officials who represents your area.

WHAT HAPPENS AFTER A COMPLAINT IS FILED?
Whenever an illegal apartment complaint is received from a private citizen, community group or elected official, an inspector from the Building Department’s Quality of Life Task Force will inspect the dwelling. If the inspector finds an illegal apartment or other violation of the Building Code, the inspector will issue a violation notice to the owner. Sometimes the inspector cannot gain access to the home, and will leave a notice asking the owner to arrange for an inspection of the home. If the owner does not respond, the inspector will return to the location at another time to try to gain access. If necessary, the Department of Buildings can seek to obtain a warrant from the court to enter your home.

WHAT DO I DO IF I RECEIVE A VIOLATION NOTICE?
If you have received a notice of violation for maintaining an illegal apartment, you may be required to attend a hearing at the Environmental Control Board (ECB). The notice of violation will tell you the time, date and location of the hearing. If you cannot attend the hearing on the specified date, you can request a new date by calling the ECB Queens office at 1-718-298-7300.

ECB will try to accommodate you and will set a new date, unless the hearing has already been rescheduled more than once. If you or your representative do not attend the hearing, a default judgment will be entered automatically.

By defaulting, you will be assessed the maximum penalty allowed under the law. A default can be reopened in 30 days, but after 30 days you will need to provide documented proof to the ECB Queens office justifying your failure to attend the hearing on the scheduled date. If you continue to ignore ECB hearing notices and fail to respond within 90 days, the Department of Finance can impose the maximum penalty.

DO I HAVE TO HIRE AN ATTORNEY?
Representation by an attorney is not mandatory. However, you may wish to seek legal advice prior to going to the ECB hearing. You also may contact the Building Department’s Administrative Enforcement Unit at 1-212-566-2850 beforehand if you have questions about the hearing process.

WHAT ARE THE FINES FOR EACH VIOLATION?
The penalty for an illegal conversion violation ranges from $250 to $2,500. A second offense at the same location within 18 months can result in fines between $1,000 and $10,000. If you are convicted of a third violation within a single 18-month period, you can be fined between $5,000 and $15,000. In addition, ECB can impose a civil penalty of up to $100 per day from the date the notice of violation is issued until the illegal condition is corrected.

HOW IS AN ILLEGAL CONDITION CORRECTED?
An illegal conversion violation may be corrected in one of two ways:

  1. Remove the illegal condition: The altered spaces must be restored to its prior legal use or layout. This may require a permit to remove partitions, plumbing, fixtures and entrances. All tenants in the illegal units must leave.
  2. If possible, legalize the illegal condition: Under certain limited circumstances, the additional housing unit may be legalized by following the guidelines below and obtaining a Certificate of Occupancy from the Department of Buildings. The Certificate of Occupancy is a document that describes the legal occupancy use of your building (for example, a one-family home, a two-family home or a 10-story apartment building). Go to www.nyc.gov/buildings and check “Resolving Department of Buildings Violations” for further information.

WHEN MUST THE ILLEGAL CONDITION BE CORRECTED?
There are significant fines and penalties for illegal apartment conversions. If you have an illegal apartment in your home, you should take steps to correct the illegal condition before you receive a notice of violation. If you eliminate the illegal condition before the Buildings Department conducts an inspection, you will not receive a violation notice and will not be charged with any penalties. If the Buildings Department conducts an inspection and finds a violation of the Building Code, you should take steps to eliminate the illegal condition immediately, because civil penalties can be imposed from the date of the violation notice until the date that the illegal condition is corrected.

HOW DOES THE VIOLATION GET DISMISSED?
Attending the ECB hearing and paying a fine is not enough to get a violations dismissed. You also must show that the illegal condition has been fixed, by filing a Certificate of Correction with the Building Department’s Administrative Enforcement Unit (AEU). The form is available from the AEU or the borough office.

In order to prove that the condition has been corrected, you must submit either evidence that the illegal condition has been eliminated (such as photographs and bills from contractors) or a new Certificate of Occupancy if you have legalized the unit. This is very important, because penalties can continue to accrue until the violation has been cured.

HOW DO I LEGALIZE AN ADDITIONAL DWELLING UNIT IN
MY HOME?

First you have to determine if your property is zoned for multiple housing units or apartments. Second, the size of your property must be sufficient under the zoning rules.

The building’s structure is also important. For example, due to fire safety concerns, a wood frame house cannot be converted to multiple housing units. For basic zoning questions, you can call the Department of Buildings’ Customer Service Department at 1-718-286-0600.

If the zoning, lot size and building structure are appropriate, then you must hire a New York State-licensed architect (R.A.) or professional engineer (P.E.) to prepare design drawings and submit an alteration application to the Department of Buildings on your behalf.

A filing fee must be paid when you submit the permit application, and the size of the fee depends upon the scope of the work. There is also a penalty for a legalization -- for a one-family or two-family home, it is two times the cost of the filing fee.

After the Buildings Department approves the application, you will receive a work permit to legalize the existing conditions. If plumbing or electrical work is required, you must hire a NYC-licensed plumber or electrician to verify that the work meets the standards of the Building Code.

After the work is completed, you can request that the Buildings Department issue a new Certificate of Occupancy. Buildings Department inspectors will check your building to make certain that it conforms with the plans submitted by your architect or engineer. If it does, the Department will issue a new Certificate of Occupancy, describing the present status and legal use of the building.

If the zoning rules do not allow multiple housing units or apartments, the improper use must be stopped and the home must be restored to its prior legal layout.

CAN I APPEAL THE DECISION OF THE BUILDINGS DEPARTMENT?
The Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) hears and decides appeals from property owners whose applications to construct or alter buildings or establish new uses have been denied by the Department of Buildings. Under very specific and limited circumstances, the Board may grant a Variance or Special Permit if specific findings have been made as prescribed by the zoning resolution, building code and case law.

For further information you can contact BSA by calling 1-212-788-8500 or you can download instructions on how to file an application at: www.nyc.gov/html/bsa/html/home/home.shtml.

However, applications require technical supporting data and drawings that should be prepared for filing by licensed professionals (attorneys, architects or engineers) who have experience working with BSA.

LANDLORD / TENANT ISSUES

Rent: Landlords can commence a non-payment proceeding in Housing Court against tenants in legal or illegal units, and although individual cases may be decided differently, tenants might be found liable for the rent.

Eviction: The landlord first serves a 30-day eviction notice. If the tenant does not leave in 30 days, the landlord can then file a summary eviction proceeding in Housing Court. It usually takes 1-3 weeks to take the case in front of a judge, who typically gives the tenant 30-60 days to vacate the dwelling. As a result, the entire process will take from two to four months before the tenant is required to leave. In some cases, the court, in its discretion, may grant an adjournment.

WHEN A ONE-FAMILY OR TWO-FAMILY HOME IS CONVERTED TO A BUILDING WITH THREE OR MORE UNITS:

Rent: A landlord cannot collect rent from any tenants where a one-family dwelling has been illegally converted into a building with three or more dwelling units. In such case, neither the tenants in the illegal units nor the tenants in the legal units must pay rent, and the landlord cannot bring a non-payment proceeding in Housing Court. However, if the landlord has a legal three-family dwelling with a valid registration statement on file and adds an illegal apartment, the landlord may seek action for non-payment, but only against the tenants in the legal dwelling units.

Eviction: If a landlord has a legal three-family dwelling with a valid registration statement on file, the landlord can seek action in Housing Court to evict the tenants. Most illegal conversions are in one-family and two-family dwellings, and owners of these dwellings do not have the right to seek eviction.

Please Note: This document is for informational purposes only.
Tenants should seek legal advice for specific cases.


How can I get more information about...

ZONING RULES AND REGULATIONS:
NYC Department of City Planning / Zoning Information Desk
22 Reade Street
New York, New York 10007
1-212-720-3291

NYC Department of Buildings / Customer Service Department
120-55 Queens Boulevard
Kew Gardens, New York 11424
1-718-286-0600

NOTICES OF VIOLATION:
NYC Department of Buildings / Administrative Enforcement Unit
280 Broadway
New York, New York 10007
1-212-566-2850

ECB PROCEEDINGS:
Environmental Control Board - Queens
144-06 94th Avenue
Jamaica, New York 11435
1-718-298-7300

YOUR RIGHTS AS A TENANT FACING EVICTION FROM AN ILLEGAL DWELLING:
Queens Legal Services Corp.
89-02 Sutphin Boulevard
Jamaica, New York 11435
1-718-657-8611

YOUR RIGHTS AS A LANDLORD SEEKING TO EVICT TENANTS:
Rent Stabilization Association
123 William Street
New York, New York 10038
1-212-214-2400

Dial 311 for all non-emergency questionsREPORTING AN ILLEGAL APARTMENT OR OTHER BUILDING CODE VIOLATIONS:
Call: 311

 

 


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