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The Civic Scene: Queens fire proves need for zoning enforcement

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They die by ones, twos or fours, or perhaps hundreds, as illegal construction or usage causes fire after fire. In Ozone Park the Department of Building twice cited a homeowner for illegal construction.

The problem is that while the DOB will eventually get out to a location where a violation has been reported, there are not enough inspectors to do a very good job. Community Board 8 has one inspector for one half a day a month.

Although the DOB, which people for years have called dysfunctional, earns the city much more money than it costs to run it, the city still does not supply enough well-paid inspectors. Even after a citation has been given there still is the problem of determining which agency, court or bureau will correct the violations and convict, fine and collect the money from the building’s owner.

There have been attempts to make the system more efficient, but owners have tricks to change the ownership name and mailing address, as well as to steal plans from the Office of the Department of Buildings. The U.S. Constitution considers a home sacred, so it often is difficult to gain admission to verify a violation.

For example, a 2001 quality-of-life complaint was never confirmed because inspectors could not gain admission. Some residents are reluctant to turn in illegal conversion violators because they are their neighbors, yet this hesitation can put their own homes and lives in danger. The recent fire that killed four destroyed the attached home next door.

The city has taken some steps to improve this situation, but it must increase its efforts to prevent more people from dying and tax-paying property from being destroyed due to illegal construction by owners and speculators who want to make money.

In Forest Hills, the owners of a group of homes have formed the Kew Forest Neighborhood Association to fight to preserve their fine residential community. The area had been zoned R-6, and builders had legally constructed apartment houses around the periphery of the area.

Stately one-family, two-story homes had been built in the center of the area like similar homes built in many R-2 areas of Queens. The owners knew nothing about zoning or civic associations; they didn’t even know about the covenant in their deeds prohibiting anything larger than a single-family house to be built on their property. They just lived quietly about two blocks from Queens Boulevard.

About three years ago a builder bought a house, demolished it and started to erect a 15-unit apartment house on the property in the midst of the one-family houses. The builder dug right on the property line of the adjacent house, even putting his equipment on the other owner’s property. The homeowners banded together and enlisted the aid of former Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz, who forced the DOB to come and see what was being done. She obtained a stop work order.

The homeowners then met with former Queens Borough President Claire Shulman. I was invited to that meeting. It was decided to change the zoning from R-6 to R-2 where the houses were located. The homeowners were introduced to the world of civic associations and started attending meetings of the Queens Civic Congress.

The knowledge of dozens of civic leaders was opened to them. Searches led to the discovery of restrictive covenants in 65 of the homes.

Tina and Hing Wah Lai became involved with civics. The Kew Forest Neighborhood Association was created. Tina Wah Lai is now a vice president of the Queens Civic Congress. The homeowners had to go to court and spend more than $100,000 in court fees. A court order told the builder to restore the house. It is not known what he will do, but a well-built, one-family house could probably be sold for a good price.

The civic is working with Councilwoman Melinda Katz (D-Forest Hills) and Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) to pass a law to make the Department of Buildings keep a roster of all houses with restrictive covenants in their deeds.

GOOD AND BAD NEWS OF THE WEEK

Last fall the Department of Education gave New York City teachers a large raise. Suddenly the shortage of certified teachers disappeared. Now Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. George Pataki say they have big deficits. Will this money be available next year?

I recently read in an Auckland, New Zealand newspaper that the government wants to give new teachers a $1,500 bonus if they stay in teaching in New Zealand for more than two years. They have the same problem of certified teachers leaving after three to four years. Of course, some teachers leave after a few months when they become frustrated with the problems they encounter.

I hope city and state leaders realize that teachers need a decent salary and the basic problems in the schools need to be solved, such as those pertaining to supplies and equipment, among others. There have to be ways to make all or most of the students and their parents care about coming to school, going to classes, listening, being respectful and doing homework. Then all the schools will be well-performing educational institutions.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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