Owners with illegally converted apartments face civil and criminal penalties - JuniperCivic.com
Serving Middle Village and Maspeth since 1938.

Originally published in the March 2005 Juniper Berry Magazine

Owners with illegally converted apartments face civil and criminal penalties

Stop Work Orders posted on door.

We have all read the headlines about the carnage resulting from illegal rentals.

Two firefighters were killed jumping from the 5th floor of an apartment house because an illegal wall put them in a room with no fire escape.

Two firefighters were hospitalized from that blaze, one since released, the other fighting for his life. Another firefighter was killed when a fire broke out in an illegally rented cellar. The question I have is why aren't the NYC Fire Department officials screaming for some kind of enforcement and inspection control over these illegal apartments that are causing these firefighter deaths? Also, three people were killed in Jamaica when a fire broke out in yet another illegally rented cellar.

When there is a loss of life, owners with illegally converted apartments face civil and criminal penalties. Occupants of illegal basement and cellar apartments, particularly, face potential dangers such as carbon monoxide poisoning, inadequate light and ventilation and inadequate egress in the event of a fire.

With a total of 6 people dead in the last couple of weeks from illegal rentals, when will there be any arrests?

It is always the responsibility of the owner to know what is going on in their rentals. All landlords should have a key to any apartment they rent and they have a right, upon notice to the tenant, to inspect that apartment. It is their obligation to have this oversight to make sure everything is under control. Ignorance by the owner, as was

expressed by the owner of the building where there were illegal walls separating the rooms, is never a defense. If you are a tenant in a building with an illegal rental, because of the dangers to you and your family, you have the

right to withhold your rent until the illegal rental is vacated.

Basements and cellars of multiple dwellings are not legal rentals unless the conditions meet the minimum requirements for light, air, sanitation and egress, and have received approval by the New York City Department of Buildings. They are never legal rentals unless they meet the strict criteria stated above.

What about the monetary loss to the homeowner? Insurance companies will not pay for any damages caused by fires from illegal rentals. The owners not only face criminal charges but they risk losing their life savings because they have misrepresented the status of their houses to the insurance companies.

Think about it, if you, for instance, tell the insurance company that you own a legal two family house and then you put an illegal tenant in the basement, you have lied to the insurance company. What obligation would the insurance company have to pay for your damages?

The Internal Revenue Service is also a player in these illegal rentals. The IRS can go back any number of years where income tax evasion is involved on an individual's tax return. There is no statute of limitations on income tax evasion. Not reporting all your income is income tax evasion. Every owner collecting rent from an illegal apartment is a candidate for IRS investigation. Of course, let's not forget the NYS Taxation authorities. They too will come after an owner for any taxes that are due.

Look at the risks the owners take to collect illegal rent: civil and criminal charges in the event of death, that certainly means possible incarceration; no insurance coverage because of misrepresentation to the insurance company and income tax evasion charges from the IRS and NYS taxing authorities. Income tax evasion charges usually carry heavy monetary penalties Also, since the other legal tenants in a building with illegal rentals can withhold rent they, too, have recourse to refunds on any rent already paid while there was an illegal rental in the house. You have to ask, is it worth it?

The Juniper Park Civic Association has been involved with this problem now for many years. You don't have to be a genius to see that there is no enforcement energy coming from the authorities.We have seen three firefighter deaths and one life hanging in the balance, when is the madness going to stop? The NYC Building Department is sleepwalking through the issue as evidenced by a backlog of 12,600 building inspections in Queens County alone.