The Battle of Richmond Hill

Print More

In the late 1880s, sitting in the study of the huge house he built for himself in Richmond Hill, a photographer and reporter named Jacob Riis wrote a small volume called How the Other Half Lives, During the days, he dragged his camera through the corridors of Lower East Side tenements, dodging rats, loose pigs and orphaned children. At night he returned to the tree-lined repose of central Queens to write.

“[The] large rooms,” Riis said of the sub-divided tenements of lower Manhattan, “were partitioned into several smaller ones, without regard to light or ventilation … They soon became filled from cellar to garret with a class of tenantry living from hand to mouth, loose in morals, improvident in habits, degraded, and squalid as beggary itself.”

One hundred and eight years after Riis published his book, Nancy Cataldi has discovered that other the half now lives in Richmond Hill.

“Half of the houses have people living in them illegally, stuffed into basements, attics, wherever they can fit them,” says Cataldi, herself a freelance news photographer and Richmond Hill homeowner. “In one house on my block, the guy’s just a slumlord. There are drug dealers and prostitutes. When the sewer line backed up, he got a sump pump and let it empty into a dumpster in the backyard. Each floor has four or five rooms. It’s just unbelievable.”

Until this kind of thing started happening, no one would have mistaken this section of Queens for the old Lower East Side. Yet, because low-cost housing is so hard to find in other parts of the city, Queens is fast becoming a gritty gateway for the city’s new immigrant homeowners and tenants.

To make mortgage payments, immigrant homeowners throughout the borough pack their modest one- and two-family houses to the rafters, filling illegal basement and attic apartments with tenants and rent-paying relatives.

The phenomenon has changed the basic nature of neighborhoods like Richmond Hill, Jamaica, Kew Gardens and Astoria–practically every corner of the borough. The signs aren’t hard to find. Illegal apartments crowd neighborhoods: Sanitation crews are overwhelmed by thousands of extra garbage bags, front lawns are enlisted as parking lots, and local school districts are among the most overcrowded in the city.

But all this wouldn’t add up to much without the fires. Over the last few years, New York City has heard the story too many times. An electrical fire rips through a Queens frame house, killing immigrant workers and leaving multiple families homeless. In almost every case, illicit construction was the cause: faulty wiring, cheap partitions and no fire protections. The most recent fatalities were in August, when a Guyanese seamstress and her daughter died in an illegal attic apartment, trapped in a building with no fire escapes or smoke detectors.

These tragedies have pushed politicians to attack the problem with rare vigor. Last year, the state legislature and City Council passed laws that led to a massive crackdown against owners who build illegal apartments. In Queens, the result has been almost 150 orders to vacate.

There’s only one problem with this vigorous enforcement strategy. New York needs these apartments, illegal or not. With affordable home construction stalled and federal housing money drying up, tenants are desperate for some place to live.

That means a war between homeowners who want Queens to remain the city’s suburbia-with-subways and the new immigrants who say they have the right to alter the neighborhood to fit their needs. Right now, Riis’ Richmond Hill is the main battleground in this conflict.

“Ultimately, there’s going to have to be a compromise,” says Mary Ann Carey, district manager of the community board in neighboring Kew Gardens. “Ed Koch used to come out here and people used to push him to do something about the illegal apartments and he used to say, ‘What am I supposed to do, kick all of these people out on the streets?’ I agree with him.

“At some point we’re going to have to legalize some of these places.”


That will be a hard sell, as Queens has always been a shrine dedicated to the sanctity of the one-family home.

Starting in the late 19th century, the utopians saw the borough as New York’s salvation. If Brooklyn Heights was the nation’s first actual suburb, Queens was the earliest version of modern suburbia–the godmother of Levittown.

It was here that the English “Garden Cities” movement of the nineteenth century took firm root, as planners sought to civilize chaotic city life by imposing the values of a pastoral village. “Garden City” is what dry-goods magnate A.T. Stewart called his oak-lined Queens arcadia, built in 1869. The developments that followed–Sunnyside Gardens, Jackson Heights, Forest Hills Gardens and Jamaica Estates–were similarly walled, gated, genteelly landscaped and built in uniform architectural style.

Yet behind their physical appearance was an objective that persists in Queens today: to create a safe anti-city in convenient commuting proximity to the real city.

“You have two strong strains in Queens–both of them based on the principal of homeownership,” says Queens historian Jeffrey Kroessler. “The first strain is the existence of model communities in Queens with planned streets, planned housing and the whole sense of community planned out in advance. The second is mile upon mile of market rate housing that incorporates very little of the community. That’s Queens.”

The Sunnyside Gardens model town, Kroessler writes in his chronicle of the borough, represented “a conscious rejection of the values, disorder and confusion of city life.” Part of that meant keeping the poor outside: the average price of a Sunnyside cottage was a third higher than prices in the rest of the borough.

As the nation’s economy soared after the first World War, Queens was the site of a home construction frenzy, the likes of which will never be seen again in New York–or anywhere else, for that matter. Between 1924 and 1928, 85,000 new homes were built in Queens. The spur for the borough’s boom–and subsequent bust–was a 1922 state law that allowed insurance companies to put 40 percent of their swelling assets into real estate.

It wasn’t apartments that Queens wanted or got. Seventy-five percent of the new buildings were one- and two-family houses, and that was no accident. Residents who bought houses under the new law were exempted from having to pay real estate taxes for ten years.

No such incentive was given for the construction of mid-priced apartments. By the mid-1920s, during the height of the housing boom that would more than double the borough’s population, the city’s tenement commissioner chided Queens developers for failing to increase “the supply of low or moderate rental apartments.”

That was an understatement. A borough-wide vacancy survey conducted a short time earlier revealed that there were precisely two vacant rental apartments in the entirety of Queens.


Liberty Avenue is the heart of Indo-Caribbean New York, a bustling working-class commercial strip that cuts through heavily residential Richmond Hill. It wears the vestments of the old Irish-Italian neighborhood it once was: candy stores, taverns with shamrock crests, an Italian pork emporium. But the language spoken on streetcorners is increasingly Hindi, and the waitress who brings the extra croutons for your vegetarian split pea soup is an Indian girl, albeit an Indian girl with press-on nails and a Queens accent.

Between cell phone conversations and sips of soup, Chan Jamoona sits in the diner booth and sifts through the mass of paperwork that identifies her as president of the United Hindu Cultural Council. “The community was such a mess before we came here,” says Jamoona, a nurse who was raised in Trinidad. “I don’t understand how anybody can say the quality of life has dropped here. Before we came, there was no quality of life here.”

Most of Jamoona’s neighbors hail from Trinidad, Jamaica or Guyana. Many of their ancestors came to the New World in the 19th century as indentured servants for the British. When the United States liberalized immigration laws in the 1980s, some 73,000 Guyanese, many of them middle-class Indians, moved to Queens.

Jackson Heights is the city’s best known Indian neighborhood, but Indo-Caribbeans started moving into nearby Richmond Hill in search of more space and cheaper housing. Many, Jamoona and her husband among them, were able to muster down payments for one- and two-family houses.

The houses in the northern part of this neighborhood are, for the most part, turreted, dormered Victorians. Cataldi’s is a seven-bedroom giant that has retained its 100-year-old woodwork and stained glass windows. More than 1,000 of these capacious homes were built by Henry Hogaard, a colorful early 20th century architect who, legend has it, narrowly escaped death when a bullet fired by a contractor deflected off the eyeglass case in his pocket. Cataldi’s house, it turns out, was once owned by Hogaard’s mother.

But below Jamaica Avenue, into South Richmond Hill, the houses are smaller–sturdy, unpretentious wood-frames erected by the thousands during the pre-Depression building boom. There are very few apartment buildings in the neighborhood.

Jamoona and other local leaders claim that most new homebuyers don’t know the laws that prevent them from carving their houses into apartments. But the laws are clear on three major grounds. First, the city forbids the construction of apartments in wood-frame houses. Second, state law prohibits residentially zoned houses from being used as apartment buildings. Third, many of the units–especially unventilated basements–could never pass fire inspections.

Housing inspectors tell City Limits that more than half the apartments in the neighborhood have illegal apartments–the vast majority of them in basements. “Basically, they’re everywhere,” says a buildings department official.

This underground real estate market is fed by local realtors who advise buyers to pay for their mortgages by renting out rooms. “If I told you that we didn’t tell people about renting out the basement, I’d be lying to you,” says Ed Ahmad, sitting in his Century 21 office on Liberty Avenue. “When the laws passed, I restrained my guys from doing that. But people know what they need to do. They continue to rent their apartments out because they don’t have a choice.”

As he talks, a dozen young men in crisp white shirts lean into their phones, exhorting people to sell their houses. Five years ago, Ahmad explains, 75 percent of the buyers were struggling first-time homeowners. Now he estimates that 60 percent of the buyers he deals with are selling off properties for the second, third or even fourth time. “Some people are making real estate investments,” he says.

Liberty Avenue bears the imprint of the blossoming real estate trade. Within 10 blocks of Ahmad’s storefront office stand no fewer than 10 realty offices, three mortgage companies and a trio of insurance brokers.
“Not one of these guys on the avenue isn’t making money,” Ahmad adds.


But the good times that have made men like Ahmad prosperous may be coming to an end, thanks to the city’s crackdown on illegal subdivides.

The turning point was April 20, 1997, when a fire spread quickly through an illegally wired Maspeth boardinghouse. The 16 occupants, mostly poor Polish day laborers, leapt from second- and third-story windows to escape the flames. Four of them, including the building’s owner, didn’t make it.

That tragedy, followed by the discovery of dozens of deaf Mexicans workers enslaved in the basement of a Queens house, put political momentum behind the demand for stricter building code enforcement.

Under pressure from Queens Borough President Claire Shulman, the state quickly passed a “Nail and Mail” law which allowed inspectors to issue violations even if the building’s owner wasn’t present. More importantly, the city created a special Buildings Department task force that prowled the neighborhood on nights and weekends with fire inspectors. The more aggressive enforcement effort was strengthened by heavy new fines: an $800 one-time penalty for houses fitted out for more tenants than zoning laws permit, along with a $50 fee for each day the landlord failed to correct the condition. Maximum penalties for violations of safety and fire codes were raised from $10,000 to $25,000.

The impact, according to officials and neighborhood residents, has been dramatic. Since last year, the city has issued 7,459 violations in Queens. In 149 cases, inspectors found conditions dangerous enough to immediately evacuate the building.

The result, depending on who you talk to, was either a sweeping victory for zoning justice or a witch hunt. “It’s not really fair,” Jamoona says. “People bought their houses with the understanding that they would be able to generate extra dollars in income. They were not told that renting out the basements was illegal. They were not aware that there were so many rules and regulations. If this continues, people are going to have to lose their homes.”

Ed Ahmad estimates his business has dropped by one-fourth. “If this keeps up there will be a real estate collapse in this neighborhood.”


In the wake of the crackdown, Jamoona, Ahmad and a group of Indo-Caribbean leaders have been trying to come up with a plan of their own.

The idea is to create special zoning exemptions in Richmond Hill that permit subdivisions–as long as owners undertake the major renovations that will make their buildings safe. “We’re not talking about doing this for those boarding houses with 30 guys shoved down the basement,” Ahmad says. “We’re talking about making it legal for someone to rent a basement apartment to their cousin.”

But even that won’t be easy. Earlier this year, the city’s buildings commissioner told Newsday that easing enforcement was “difficult because Richmond Hill is primarily built with wood-frame houses, which are very dangerous when converted to multiple-family residences.”

The complexities of the law work against any such effort. Anyone who wants to alter New York’s building code has to change at least six different codes: the state Multiple Dwelling Law, the state Housing Maintenance Code, the city’s “old” and “new” building codes, and the city’s health and fire safety codes.

The activists will first need to surmount the prohibition on turning a wood-frame house into anything other than a one- or two-family dwelling. In a 1993 analysis of the illegal occupancy problem, researcher Jill Hamberg reported that most other municipalities in the country allow multiple dwellings in wood-frame houses.

“Maybe you can alter some of the codes,” Hamberg says, “if you deal with the fire safety and health conditions. That’s the bottom line.”

To that end, Ahmad and Jamoona have contacted architect Phil Augusta, former commissioner of the City’s Board of Standards and Appeals, which oversees zoning and planning, to work on a fireproof template for the typical Richmond Hill basement.

Augusta’s basic plan, which he believes will cost the average homeowner around $10,000, involves creating fireproof partitions around exposed boilers, replacing old wiring, and installing fire sprinklers and detection devices. Since most basements are accessible only from an interior staircase, owners would also have to install a second exit and staircase leading directly out the side of the house. “All this can be done if people are willing to be a little flexible,” Augusta says.

But any plan to change codes or zoning is far from reality. The major players in Queens–Shulman, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone and Archie Spigner, the chair of the council’s housing committee–oppose sweeping zoning changes.

They do, however, want to give small landlords more breathing room. Shulman has drawn up a City Council bill that would give owners a four-month reprieve from daily fines if they prove that they are making a fair effort to improve safety conditions. Shulman’s office expects the bill to be taken up by the council later this year.

For the city’s Indo-Caribbean community, the concessions are not enough. The issue is fast becoming a clear indication that they don’t have any power in dealing with established political forces.

Ahmad, who has helped coordinate voter registration drives, is also working to create a new Democratic club that he hopes will force local politicians to pay attention to his community. “It’s really our fault, we’re not getting power and letting people get away with persecuting us,” he says. “We’ve got to learn how to fight for power.”

But Nancy Cataldi isn’t thinking about power–she simply wants her neighborhood to become less chaotic, conflicted, and crowded. She wants Queens to remain Queens. And, in 1998, that may be the most radical position of all.

“We would like to see families move into the houses in their original states,” says Nancy Cataldi. “We want to see it a little bit like what it was like at the beginning of the century.”