Fire Deaths Prompt New York to Eye Illegal Subdivisions

By and Samantha Gross | April 28, 2011

City fire and buildings officials will search for new ways to target landlords who unlawfully subdivide their properties, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Tuesday in the wake of a fire that killed a family living in illegal housing.

Bloomberg said city inspectors are unable to gain entry to roughly half the properties that are the subjects of complaints, as was the Bronx home where 12-year-old Christian Garcia and his parents, 36-year-old Juan Lopez and 43-year-old Christina Garcia, died early Monday — all of them cut off from fire escapes because of the illegal changes to the three-story building.

“The real disgrace here is building owners who put profits ahead of people’s lives by illegally converting apartments to make more money and allowing extremely dangerous conditions to persist,” Bloomberg said at a press conference.

Such makeshift warrens are all over the nation’s biggest city _ where most people live in apartments, rents are high, residents are looking for a way to save and landlords are looking for a way to make more money. The Department of Buildings gets about 20,000 calls of illegally converted apartments annually. Inspectors respond at least twice to every complaint and try to gain access to the building, but they are often turned away by tenants, or no one answers the door. If that happens, they must find evidence that the law is being broken and apply for a warrant to get inside.

At the Bronx building, inspectors had looked for evidence but couldn’t find any, and no warrant was filed there, the agency said.

The mayor said that constitutional protections against illegal search and seizure often present an insurmountable obstacle to city officials seeking to assure the safety of properties, especially because savvy landlords don’t put in extra mailboxes or doorbells where they’re visible to the public. Two-thirds of city requests for access warrants are denied by the courts, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said.

Apartment owners often plead ignorant, saying they have little control over tenants because they rarely see what goes on within the units. But renters say owners are just as guilty.

The burned Bronx building has been in foreclosure, and ownership has passed through various banking institutions — making it more difficult for authorities to determine who was responsible for it.

The city is still investigating the cause of the fire, which broke out at about 3:30 a.m. in the Tremont section of the Bronx. The three victims lived on the top floor of the property, which had been ordered vacated by authorities in 2009. Inspectors’ attempts to follow up on the order to see if people were still living there were fruitless: They weren’t allowed back into the building, Bloomberg said.

Most recently, a caller complained on April 14 that the blighted building was illegally converted into single rooms and people were living there. Department of Buildings inspectors hadn’t responded to the call. Local residents told reporters the victims were a family of immigrants from Mexico. It’s unclear how many people were staying in the building.

The last owner on record for the three-story home, Domingo Cedano, did not answer calls to his business Tuesday. Calls to the foreclosure company also weren’t returned.

The address has seen a number of complaints in recent years. One in October 2009 said there was no secondary way out from illegal rooms and there was improper electrical wiring throughout the building. That complaint resulted in the fire department ordering third-floor residents to move out. The other complaints logged were about illegal wiring, illegal single-occupancy rooms and the removal of a boiler.

Inspectors visited 10 times since the first complaint was filed in December 2008, and fire officials visited as well. But they were only able to enter the property once, the city said.

Over the last 28 months, the Department of Buildings has obtained twice as many warrants to enter apartments as it did in the six years before that, the mayor said. Last year, the city issued about 1,300 orders to vacate apartments that had been illegally subdivided.

Buildings officials also went undercover between May 2010 and September 2010, posing on the Craigslist classified-ads website as tenants to gain access to 62 apartments around the city, writing violations for 54 of them. Since 2009, the department also has distributed more than 120,000 fliers on the issue, warning New Yorkers in many different languages on the dangers of illegal conversions.

In January 2005, two firefighters were killed after leaping out a window and another four were hurt when responding to a blaze in a building that had been illegally partitioned. Firefighters have access to building floor plans, but they weren’t expecting a deadly maze of walls. Two tenants and the building owner went on trial in the deaths because of the creation of the illegal warrens, but a jury acquitted the tenants, and a judge later overturned the building manager’s conviction on charges of criminally negligent homicide in the deaths.

Topics New York

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