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Boro prez, task force aim to stop illegal conversions

Borough President Helen Marshall and the Illegal Conversion Task Forces met with officials from the Buildings Department Tuesday to discuss ways to toughen legislation that prohibits owners of one- and two-family residences from squeezing three or four families into their properties.

“One of the goals of the Illegal Conversion Task Force is to revisit the legislation and to find out what the problems are and how to enforce it better,” Marshall said. “We can’t just keep on converting these buildings.”

Among the problems discussed, members of the task forces said the Buildings Department does not have enough power to collect fines it levies against homeowners who illegally convert their property.

Magdi Mossad, the Queens commissioner of the Buildings Department, admitted that fines often go unpaid for years. He also said the agency does not have the strength to stop homeowners who have been fined heavily for illegal conversions from buying or constructing new facilities.

Members of the task force also talked about clamping down on real estate agents who sell residences that have been illegally converted. Several members said they believe real estate agents have to have the responsibility to ensure that a property they are selling has not been illegally converted.

Other members called for ending a Buildings Department provision that allows some architects or home builders to receive a license from the state so they can inspect and register residences they build themselves.

The provision was written in 1995 to lighten the Buildings Department’s work load, but many people have been taking advantage of the law and overlooking violations on residences they construct, Mossad said.

The Buildings Department “is looking very carefully and taking some measures to discover those abusing the system,” Mossad said. “We need to find out what is happening to these abusers.”

The task force, which recently promised to step up pressure on homeowners illegally converting their property, has faced some criticism from immigrant groups. They say many immigrant families depend on such apartments for rental income to pay their mortgages or to allow grandparents to live with them to help with child care.

Members of the Indo-Caribbean community in Richmond Hill have worried that many people living in illegally converted apartments may be thrown out on the street. When Marshall reconvened the task force last month, they said zoning codes are outdated and that illegal apartments are not necessarily dangerous.

At that time, Marshall said that not only are illegally converted residences usually overpriced, but their electrical systems often are inadequate and can cause fires and loss of lives.

A neighborhood of illegally converted residences also can boost the population of the area and cause overcrowding in local schools, she said.

Reach reporter Brendan Browne by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 155.

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