NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – Illegally subdivided apartments are becoming a growing problem in New York City and the Department of Buildings is cracking down.

“Illegal conversions can really cost you your life if you’re not careful,” Commissioner Robert Limandri says.

The illegal apartments are all over the city and tenants may not even know until it’s too late. Last year, five people were killed inside an illegal apartment in a fire in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. In the Bronx, firefighters had no idea illegal construction blocked exits in an apartment building fire. Two jumped to their deaths when they couldn’t escape the flames.

The influx of illegal apartments has become such a problem that the DOB has gone undercover, looking for and busting illegal apartments. The city agency has agents who set up sting operations—part of an ongoing enforcement action.

It’s start with a DOB agent reading between the lines, trying to find illegal apartments among online advertisements. She says they’re easy to spot.

“If it’s a really, really cheap apartment, they’re telling you it’s in a basement or an attic, anything like that,” the undercover agent says. “All utilities included—we really look for that. That’s a red flag for us.”

Once they find the target, they pose as renters and go out to confirm. On their first stop, they went to Cambria Heights where undercover cameras recorded everything.

Inspectors say this apartment is anything but a safe place to live. The door at the top of the stairs is kept locked, which is a huge fire hazard and could mean a disaster in an emergency.

Furthermore, the gas and electric lines have been installed without any oversight or inspection.

On the second stop, the inspectors went to Ozone Park where a cellar had been illegally converted into an apartment.

The apartment only had one way out, and the boiler was in the closet, which puts the tenant at risk if there were an explosion.

Each apartment visited on this day was illegal and had serious violations.

“Each and every one was a death trap,” another undercover DOB agent says. “All unsafe.”

Limandri says these apartments may be cheap, but they’re not work it.

“You want to find a different arrangement that’s a safe arrangement because it could cost you your life,” Limandri says.

Each of these homeowners faces fines up to $14,000, and since the problem began investigators have issued violations in 86 percent of the apartments visited. With the number of violations, Limandri says they’re not stopping anytime soon.

“We’re out there,” he says. “We’re watching you. Eventually, we may be knocking on your door looking for an apartment.”

Maurice DuBois

Comments (11)
  1. behindblueeyes says:

    I would like to speak to some one in private in regards to an illegel apartments

  2. Queens Resident says:

    Not only should they scan Craigslist but all the Chinese newpapers as well. They are notorious for illegal conversions in Queens NYC

  3. pete says:

    It is common knowledge that the Buildings Department is on the payroll of the landlords or everyone else who needs a Building Permit. The so called “crack-down” on illegal conversions is just another seasonal smoke screen because the result is always a big Zero.

  4. Linda says:

    If they deported the illegal immigrants they would save money. Why waste money looking for illegal apartments and not take care of the problem, do the ploiticians really get this many illegal votes and is the loss of life really worth it ?

  5. Jerry says:

    …what a joke,in my old neighborhood of Richmond Hill, I say old because most of those who began moving in made the typical Archie Bunker house a three family,whereby traffic and parking became absolutely impossible and anyone who card about their quality of life left.
    I can’t tell you how many fires w/ injuries have occurred because of it.
    Harsh penalties should be imposed as well as criminal charges for endangering tenants as well as avoiding taxes.

  6. Realist says:

    Whatcha talkin’ about Willis? A fire escape for an illegal basement apt.? Trying to picture how that would work!

    1. BF says:

      Not necessarily a traditional fire escape, but an additional second means of egress. For instance, if the interior stairway was located in the front of the building (primary means of egress), perhaps another doorway/stairway in the rear of the building that went from the basement to the exterior of the building (secondary means of egress).

  7. john mcquillan says:

    How about cracking down on illegal people.

  8. Mike C says:

    It’s a huge problem here in Sunset Park as well.NO fire escapes or sprinklers and a common (or NO) toilet.The only way out leads to a back yard (good luck there in a fire).Ads in PAPERS?No way.They plaster them all over the light poles on the main avenue (“low overhead”).They even bring their garbage up to the corner to throw away, so you don’t see lots of trash at the houses.It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

  9. Pay my mortgage so I live free says:

    It’s becoming a growing problem ???? It’s been a problem and a big problem. Aside from the fact that people are having their mortgages paid by renters who pay cash for these places and live in a cube, lives have always been at risk. This is not something that should be enforced only becuase the county governments are so desperate for money. It should be on ongoing job taken very seriously. Go to Ridge-wood, Queens and start their. But bring a huge truck with you, you’ll need it to put all the fine money becuase it’s an epidemic in that place and many others

    1. ??? says:

      What does someone using rental income to pay their mortgage have to do with this problem. If the violation is intended for the safety of the tenant so be it, but paying your mortgage is irrelevant.

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