Suprise inspections anger Whitestone

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A candidate running for City Council accused the city Buildings Department last Thursday of sending agents unannounced to inspect houses in Queens, then issuing violations once it was found that renovations were done and not included in the owner’s certificate of occupancy.

“The Department of Buildings is conducting surprise inspections of one- and two-family homes and issuing violations for finished cellars when the homeowners are using this space for their own personal use,” said Tony Avella, who is seeking the 19th Council District seat, which covers Bayside, Whitestone, College Point, Douglaston, Little Neck and parts of Auburndale.

He also said he sent a letter to the Department of Buildings commissioner asking that it temporarily cease making inspections until new guidelines for the inspections are set.

Paul Wein, a spokesman for the Buildings Department, said he would not comment on the letter other than to say it had been received.

He said inspections are conducted only when complaints are filed with the department and that homeowners have the right to deny entry to the inspectors. “This was nothing more than a political attention-getter,” he said of Avella’s actions.

From July to November 2000, the number of illegal conversions — adding living space to a home without a permit — has increased citywide compared with the same period last year, according to the Mayor’s Management Report.

During the four-month span last year, the department received 4,939 complaints about illegal conversions and issued 2,240 violations, the report said. The year before, the department logged 3,923 complaints and issued 3,595 violations.

Although the Buildings Department could not refine the data for Queens by Tuesday night, Wein said the borough does record a disproportionately large number of complaints of illegal conversion, but he could not explain why.

All renovations performed on a house, short of painting it or laying down a carpet, must be approved by the Department of Buildings, Wein said. And the homeowner must retain either a registered architect or a professional engineer to draw up and file plans with the department.

But John Gallagher, a registered architect from College Point, said that procedure is too Byzantine and pricey. “A simplified filing procedure should be implemented for homeowners to properly register the cellar spaces without incurring huge costs,” he said.

“[The Department of Buildings] is claiming that a finished cellar constitutes an illegal conversion, even when it is used only by the homeowner’s family,” Avella said.

Whenever a violation is issued, the homeowner is required to attend a hearing or else a default judgment is entered and the homeowner must pay the fine. For a first-time offense, the violation can range from $250 to $2,500, he said.

If the homeowner admits to the violation, he or she is required not only to pay the fine but also to correct the illegal conversion. The renovated space must be restored to its original form or if it is indeed legal, be added to the certificate of occupancy, a procedure that Avella says runs counter to democracy.

“You are guilty in the eyes of the [Department of Buildings] — then you must try to prove your innocence,” he said.

In deciding whether to issue violations, inspectors look for signs that more than the allowable number of tenants are living in a home, Wein said. For instance, they may look for added phone lines and mail boxes, or a furnished basement, he said.

If the certificate of occupancy says the basement is unfurnished and is being used for storage, a violation would be issued, Wein said.

Reach reporter Chris Fuchs by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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