The City is making a new push to curb the number of illegally converted apartments after a series of deadly fires. In the first few days of the three-week initiative launched Nov. 16, about 28,000 pamphlets were handed out at transit hubs and houses of worship in Queens and the Bronx to warn people of why illegally subdivided homes can become deathtraps in a fire, officials said.
“Education is the key to preventing another tragedy from occurring,” said Buildings Department spokesman Tony Sclafani. “By distributing these flyers, we’re hoping people understand the dangers of an illegal conversion and how to stay safe.”
The Fire and Buildings departments plan to hand out more than 50,000 flyers in total. Agency officials said they’re hoping to raise awareness among people who may not know they are living in danger.
“And, if possible, to have people assist the FDNY and the Buildings Department identify these illegal subdivides,” said FDNY spokesman Jim Long.
Advocates for immigrants applauded the effort, but some said more should be done.
“It’s a good move in the sense that the city is alerting people of what’s going on,” said Javier Valdes, deputy director of Make the Road New York. “But the flyer does not provide any alternative.”
Creating more affordable housing would make it easier for tenants to leave hazardous living conditions, Valdes added.
Locating illegal conversions has become more difficult in recent years, officials said.
Building inspectors need a warrant to enter a building, and judges require evidence, such as multiple mailboxes and doorbells, which many landlords have learned to hide, Sclafani said.
Since 2002, the city has obtained 107 warrants – only about 13 a year.
Last year, the Buildings Department issued 1,086 vacate orders for illegal apartments, up from 823 in 2007, Sclafani said.
City officials said they hope the new effort will not only increase the number of illegal conversions found, but also reduce the number of deaths caused by fires.
“We’re happy to embrace this effort,” said Queens Borough President Helen Marshall. “It is certainly timely in the wake of the recent fatal fires we have seen.”
Soon before the initiative began, a blaze in an illegal conversion in Woodside took the lives of three immigrant men. The two-story house had been turned into a five-family residence with another seven single rooms, authorities said.
In February, tenants Caridad Coste and Rafael Castillo were acquitted of manslaughter and negligent homicide in what became known as the Black Sunday fire, which took the lives of two Bronx firefighters.
Lt. Curtis Meyran, 46, and Firefighter John Bellew, 37, leaped to their deaths during the 2005 blaze after being trapped in the illegally converted apartment in Tremont.