Jacob Riis documented the squalid living conditions in New York City slums in the 1880s. It served as a basis for future muckraking journalism by exposing the slums to New York City's upper and middle class. One hundred and thirty years later we know where Mr. Riis is, but apparently his lessons have been lost on the current leadership of New York City.
The Juniper Park Civic Association has been saying for years now that we continue to be inundated with illegal rentals which create a lethal danger for the renters and for firefighters who may have to respond to a fire at the illegal rental site. If you read the newspapers recently you see how much of what the JPCA has been saying and writing about is coming to fruition.
In Woodside, firefighters were called to a fire where a basement had been converted into multiple family rentals. The people were trapped inside and three men were killed. They were attempting to use escape routes that were illegally blocked off with partitions or anti-burglary devices installed on the windows. It was stated at the scene by a Buildings Department official that the two-family home was illegally turned into a five-family residence by adding seven additional single rooms.
A fourth badly burned man was found beneath a blocked basement window. The basement had no smoke detectors, and the detectors on the two upper floors had no batteries.
You may recall a firefighter was killed a few years ago when the department responded to a fire where walls had been installed to sub-divide an apartment into several rental units. The firefighter jumped from an upper floor window in a desperate attempt to escape the flames. He was cut off from other escape routes because of the illegally installed partitions.
For the past few years, the city has received more than 20,000 complaints about illegal apartments. Half of those investigations were closed without the Buildings Department ever gaining access to the premises. Building Department records show that more than 200 properties across the city have 10 or more illegal conversion complaints since 2005.
In 2009 through October, the FDNY notified the Buildings Department of 566 illegal apartment conversions – up from 205 in all of 2008. The uphill spiral in illegal rentals speaks to the lack of concern or fear by building owners to the NYC Department of Buildings, an agency that is not taken very seriously!
None of this is surprising because the Bloomberg administration has no focus or desire to solve the problem. In fact, when Bloomberg was at a JPCA Town meeting several years ago, this writer raised the question of why there wasn't any enforcement of reported illegal rentals and his response was, Well, where would the renter go if he were put out of his illegally rented apartment? Bloomberg never gave a thought to the dangers implicit in the rentals to the renter and to firefighters who might be called to the scene in the event of a fire.
Get the picture? Bloomberg and his Department of Buildings was and still is willing to risk lives of renters and firefighters, in order to put some kind of a roof over people's heads. Many times the renter is a poor immigrant who probably isn't even aware of the fact that he is being victimized by a building owner whose only goal is to make money.
The ramifications of the illegal rentals are huge. Insurance claims skyrocket and insurance companies are not obligated to pay for the damages resulting from the illegal rental because the building owner submitted fraudulent information on their initial application.
Additionally, other tenants in a building have the right to withhold their rent because the building owner is putting their lives at risk equally with the illegal renter. The IRS would have a field day of tax collections and penalties on money not reported by the owners. The victims as well as the other renters in the building could file lawsuits that would leave the owner penniless.
The question becomes how many lives must be sacrificed before the NYC Department Of Buildings and Michael Bloomberg take illegal rentals seriously? How many firefighters will have to jump out of buildings risking their lives over and above the every day dangers of the job?
Bloomberg got four more years by bullying the system, dazzling everyone with his dollars, 100 million of them, for a win over Thompson by a mandate, as he called it, 4.6%!
He has to straighten out the Building Department and make priority #1 illegal rentals before another renter is trapped at a blocked window or door or another firefighter is forced to jump out of a window to escape a blazing, illegally converted apartment.