For Sale: How elected officials, city agencies and developers have conspired to destroy our neighborhoods
Illegal apartments are not on the radar screen of the Department of Buildings, a city agency intentionally understaffed so that there can be a ready-made excuse for lack of building code enforcement. There is one inspector assigned to respond to complaints throughout the entire borough of Queens on the overnight shift and on Saturdays and Sundays. So when you call in a complaint about a stop-work order being violated, or work being performed on a site after hours or on the weekend, it is guaranteed that no one from DOB will answer it. Building scofflaws are well aware of this and are taking full advantage of the opportunities afforded them. With a city budget surplus reported earlier in 2006 to exceed $7 billion, there is no excuse for any city agency to be understaffed. That is, unless it's intentional, which apparently it is.
Why would the city allow this to happen? Well here's one answer:
Maspeth, Middle Village and Glendale have been 'redlined' by the city to allow for overdevelopment, said one insider. This was planned out years ago, with the intention of putting all the newest immigrants here. This is a 'two-fare' zone, therefore your real estate is considered not to be prime 'yuppie territory,' but rather an area for people just happy to have a roof over their heads, who don't mind taking a bus to get home once they leave the train.
Now if this sounds like some sort of radical conspiracy theory, then consider this:
If we crack down on illegal apartments, then where will all the people living in them go? said one high level elected official straight to our executive board's faces. This was parroted by one of his underlings a few months later when the subject was brought up again. Turning a blind eye to illegal apartments has become policy for this city administration. This is sad considering who usually lives in these spaces. The city would like you to think that college students and people from other parts of the country who recently moved here are occupying them. The reality is that those newcomers will usually share legal apartments in Manhattan or other desirable trendy neighborhoods with their friends.
Those living in basements in Queens typically are people who are trying to avoid being found. In a nutshell, illegal apartments look mighty good to people doing illegal things ‒ criminals, terrorists, and undocumented immigrants. I was shocked more than a decade ago when the FBI showed up on my doorstep with a photo of the man living in my then-next door neighbor's illegally rented basement! Sex offenders often rent illegal apartments near schools and playgrounds so they may continue to assault children while living under the radar. Let's not forget that an actress was recently murdered by an illegal alien ‒ Where might her killer have lived? It's reprehensible that our city government is providing safe harbor for people who are out to do harm to the citizens it is entrusted with protecting.
If you think that shirking the building code is harmless, consider this: 98 people have died since 2001 in construction accidents. Most of them were illegal immigrants who were taken advantage of by builders who ignored safety precautions in order to save a few extra bucks. It's not a stretch to accuse our city government, which encourages both illegal immigration and unscrupulous development, of having blood on their hands.
In addition to hurting workers, on November 5th, 2006, the New York Daily News reported, Hundreds of New Yorkers have been forced to flee their homes because dangerous construction nearby damaged their foundations or raised fears their houses were unsafe. Many of these victims are elderly. This being allowed to happen is an absolute disgrace.
More than a year ago, JPCA volunteers collected and submitted to the Department of City Planning most of the information required for our rezoning study. Once again, we've been told that city planning doesn't have enough staff to complete it. It's interesting how this happened after surrounding areas were rezoned (including a large swath of Queens Boulevard that was upzoned). Maspeth, Middle Village and Glendale are the only areas of Queens where R4 and R5 infill zones, which permit buildings larger than would normally be allowed, are predominant; therefore, developers are in a feeding frenzy here.
Spot zoning is illegal, yet recently approved rezoning applications clearly show that the code is being very loosely interpreted in order to encourage overdevelopment. The city even admits that the self-certification process it put in place to help architects and developers obtain permits faster is a complete failure, yet has taken no steps to remedy the problem. The NY Times earlier this year quoted an expediter as saying self-certification is "an empty promise met by an empty threat."
Why doesn't the city council close the loopholes in the zoning and building codes? Well, the largest lobby in the city is the real estate lobby. They donate more money to the campaigns of elected officials than most of the other industries combined. So, hands off and in some cases actively helping developers is the way of the City Council. Sure, they'll host public forums so that their constituents can vent and they can appear sympathetic, but they never actually do anything once they hear the frustrations of the people. (However, voting themselves a fat pay raise was a huge priority for them.)
Someone in the real estate industry explained it like this: Don't waste your time writing letters or complaining to elected officials. Buy a $500 ticket to one of their fundraisers, introduce yourself at the event, and then a couple of days later, call them and tell them what you would like them to do for you. That's the way it's done. So, let's get this straight...the people who work for us will only do what we ask of them if we give them a bonus. Rather audacious of them, isn't it?
And if you don't have the time, but have the resources, hire a lobbyist. Did you know that there are certain people who work in our city government that won't meet with you unless you are a lobbyist? Try calling and getting a meeting with an elected official or head of a city agency. Say you are a concerned neighborhood resident who wants to discuss a quality of life issue. You'll probably be given some line like, They are booked solid for the next two months. Call again and say you are a lobbyist and plan to make a big donation to their campaign. You'll be squeezed in sometime between their free lunches of today and tomorrow.
When a developer or contractor actually is caught doing something wrong, the fines are so miniscule that they are a joke, and the same activity is soon taking place again. Repeat offenders do not receive punishment that is any more severe than a slap on the wrist. Case in point: Tommy Huang, who owns an illegally constructed house on Mazeau Street, was convicted of environmental crimes in connection with his destruction of the landmark RKO Keith's Theater in Flushing. He has flagrantly violated building and zoning codes for a quarter of a century, yet is able to continue to do what he does best ‒ destroy neighborhoods while turning a profit for himself ‒ all because the city's codes allow him to do so and our elected officials don't care.
One builder surprisingly revealed that a set of bogus plans is kept at their worksite in the rare event that an inspector actually shows up. The inspector walks away satisfied that the plans produced were the same plans approved by the Department of Buildings. Of course, they aren't. The inspectors do not check with their office to make sure that the 2 sets of plans match. DOB knows this trick is played on them all the time, yet has taken no steps to remedy the problem. It seems like a pretty simple thing to correct, so why isn't it being done?
The buildings department is there to make money for the city via the issuing of permits, so it is their mission to approve as many as possible, even if developers' plans don't always measure up to code. However, the city could make up for this if it stiffened penalties for building violations and hired enough inspectors to cover complaints and do random checks of construction sites. They would reap millions just in our area alone. There are thousands of building problems taking place in our communities every day. It would also help if they made violations of stop-work orders punishable by jail time and abuse of self-certification punishable by license revocation in addition to levying heavy fines.
While real estate seminars mention our area as being the next hot market, developers have bought up parcels of land using all cash. No one ever seems to question these transactions where underreporting of income and tax evasion is sure to be rampant. Then these developers erect ugly out-of-character structures with built-in illegal basement apartments to make them more attractive to buyers who could use the extra unreported, untaxed income to pay their mortgages. Again, no one in our city government cares.
There is no question that our borough has been earmarked to absorb the anticipated swell in population of the city. There is estimated to be an additional 1 million people moving into the city over the next 10 years and we want to be prepared for it, one mayoral aide told us. Being prepared for it, in their minds means simply upzoning and rezoning areas. To get the unsuspecting victims of this plan to think it's a good idea, bogus phrases such as affordable housing have been trumpeted by developers, council members, the mayor, etc.
The issue that everyone in our government conveniently leaves out is that our current infrastructure does not have the capacity to handle this. Remember this past summer's blackout in Astoria and Woodside? Why do you think it happened in that area? In recent years, one-family homes have been replaced with 30+ unit apartment buildings there. And the power grid couldn't take it. Maybe they should have thought of that before they opened the doors and rolled out the red carpet for high density development projects.
How about fire and police protection, bus and subway service, schools, supermarkets, hospitals? We are sorely lacking in these services now, what will happen when we pile thousands more people into our already overcrowded neighborhoods? Right now, our Borough President is stressing over Queens not having enough hospitals while our Health Commissioner is saying that we have too many. Does anyone in our government have the slightest clue of what the real story is?
We'd be happy to help our city agencies and elected officials accomplish a complete overhaul in the way things are done in the Departments of Buildings and City Planning. But first they must stop representing the interests of unscrupulous developers and start representing the people of Maspeth, Middle Village, Glendale and the rest of the five boroughs of our city. If there truly isn't enough staff to do an adequate job as is claimed, then a moratorium on building needs to be put in effect now as was suggested by JPCA President Robert Holden at the June 2006 public hearing regarding problems with the Department of Buildings in Queens. Not surprisingly, nothing positive resulted from that hearing ‒ people vented, politicians said, My, that's terrible, and business continued as usual for the City Council and their friends in the real estate industry.
The only person ignoring the Council's do-nothing rule is Councilman Tony Avella. He has been at the forefront of issues relating to the preservation of neighborhoods. He has helped us tremendously with St. Saviour's Church and has been responsive to our pleas for help regarding building and zoning issues despite the fact that he represents an area on the other side of the borough. We commend him for taking a stand and defending the working and middle class taxpayers who are fast becoming an endangered species within the City of New York.
To all the rest in our city government: Enough is enough. We are mad as hell and we're not going to take it any more. You have acted as accomplices in the destruction of our neighborhoods for too long. You are term-limited so thankfully we will suffer you for a finite period of time. However, you are leaving a permanent mark on this city by continuing to support and encourage overdevelopment.
Is this the legacy you want recorded for posterity? The next issue of the Juniper Berry will thoroughly document the egregious building offenses committed against the residents of our towns, and the names of the criminal masterminds behind them will be made known.
Consider this an official declaration of war. The upcoming year will consist of 12 months of non-stop aggression against those with intentions of destroying our neighborhoods. Quite simply, either you are on our side or you are against us. The choice is yours.
JPCA, as always, is ready to do battle. Are you?