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Back by popular demand. It’s not often that a speaker from a city agency comes back, a month after his first appearance, because so many area residents have requested his return. But, that’s exactly what happened in Canarsie, as John Gallagher, code and zoning specialist for the city’s Department of Buildings (DOB) returned to the neighborhood to speak at the February meeting of the Friends United Block Association (FUBA). Addressing the crowd gathered at Temple Shaare Emeth, 6012 Farragut Road, Gallagher gave an overview of the process by which people may be able to legalize currently illegal living space in their homes, as well as describing common pitfalls that can prevent such areas from becoming legal living quarters. He also provided insight into the reasons behind the regulations – generally to maintain the quality of life of the city’s varied neighborhoods, as well as to make sure that living space provides adequate light and air, and is safely constructed. Given the fact that, “Most illegal apartments we find at DOB are cellar or basement apartments,” according to Gallagher, one key is the difference between a cellar and a basement. A cellar, which is more than 50 percent below curb level, can never be made into legal living space, he said. However, it may be possible to convert a basement, which is more than 50 percent above curb level, into legal living space, according to Gallagher. If a homeowner is trying to legalize basement living space (whether it is a separate apartment or an extra bedroom for a family member), that space, said Gallagher, must have windows (of a “minimum size”) that “open onto a legal yard, street or open area. It also must have eight-foot high ceilings, he said. “Anyone sleeping in a cellar is clearly a violation,” Gallagher said, though, he added, “You can watch TV there, play ping pong.” In addition, said Gallagher, legalizing an added apartment or increased living space in a home must conform with requirements set out in zoning which, he stressed, “Is put in place to preserve the quality of life in different neighborhoods. Some neighborhoods, the Department of City Planning (DCP) has determined should be dense. In other neighborhoods, like Canarsie, “DCP has determined there should be lower density.” A key measurement used by DCP to determine a house’s maximum size is floor area ratio (FAR), a calculation that indicates the maximum amount of living space available in a particular zoning district. Different zoning categories have different maximum FARs. In Canarsie, for instance, most homes are built under three different zoning categories, R4, R3-2 and R4A, according to Gallagher. These have FARs ranging from .5 to .75, which result in relatively small buildings in keeping with the neighborhood streetscape. Converting a garage or other space not counted in floor area to living space, Gallagher said, could cause the FAR to exceed the maximum allowed. Conforming to zoning requirements ensures that the infrastructure and municipal services provided to an area are not overtaxed, Gallagher explained. “You may think it’s a little thing, but, all of a sudden, certain thresholds are reached,” he told his listeners. “Schools are overcrowded. Sewers don’t work anymore. As density increases in a neighborhood, the quality of life generally goes down.” Homeowners whose dwellings have illegal dwelling space may have to pay fines if they are caught, whether or not they were the ones who illegally converted the space, said Gallagher. These fines can be hefty. “If you get a violation, the fines could accumulate, day by day, till you resolve it,” Gallagher told his listeners. One way of doing that is restoring the space to what is was before it was converted to living quarters, said Gallagher. The other – which is not necessarily possible in all circumstances – is to legalize the space, which involves hiring an engineer or architect, filing plans, filing for permits, and getting inspections not only by the DOB but by city agencies responsible for checking electrical and plumbing work that has been added, to make sure it is up to code. If you legalize the space, you still must pay penalties, said Gallagher, of four times the permit filing fee, unless you can prove that the work was done prior to 1989.

Posted 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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