It had become an all too familiar pattern: a deadly fire would rip through a building in one of the outer boroughs, killing several residents living in an illegal basement or subdivided apartment. Neighbors and community advocates would decry the unsafe conditions. Discussions about how to fix the problem ensued. And then nothing. Until the next fire.

But after a November fire in Woodside, Queens killed three men in an illegal basement dwelling and a January fire killed five others living in illegally subdivided apartments in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, the city embarked upon an unprecedented educational campaign, with the Department of Buildings handing out more than 65,000 pamphlets in communities near the deadly fires and in other neighborhoods notorious for receiving a high number of illegal conversion complaints.

Meanwhile, the state legislature began pushing new legislation to increase fines for property owners who knowingly violate the city’s occupancy limits.

Housing advocates have praised the city for taking crucial steps toward fixing its illegal housing problem, but they caution that illegal housing units will continue to exist so long as city building codes and zoning regulations prevent the construction of affordable housing.

“If the housing stock doesn’t meet the needs of people, they end up living in conditions that are unsafe,” said Harold Shultz, a senior fellow at the Citizens Housing and Planning Council (CHPC), which works to improve housing conditions. “It’s important that we recognize who’s living in our housing and then configure it for them, instead of changing housing to serve purposes they were not meant to.”

New people, old homes

Housing experts estimate there are about 100,000 illegal units throughout the city, housing as many as 500,000 New Yorkers. Historically, the highest concentration of these units has been located in Queens, followed by Brooklyn and the Bronx, usually in middle-class neighborhoods with large immigrant populations.

Illegal dwellings come in many forms, ranging from single immigrants living in subdivided apartments, to owners who rent out a basement or attic as an apartment in one- and two-family homes, to young professionals who install partitions to create extra bedrooms.

As the city’s population grows, rents rise and affordable housing remains scarce, people are more willing to share residential space, even if that means creating it illegally. And as the recession carries on, cash-strapped property owners increasingly resort to renting out spaces to tenants to make ends meet.

The problem is, says Peter Salins, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who writes on immigration and housing issues, existing occupancy laws do not encourage shared living styles and “the composition of the city’s housing stock bears very little relation to the city’s population.”

For example, the existing housing stock in boroughs like Queens – mostly one- and two-family row houses – was originally built as an alternative for upper-middle class families to the heavily populated, tenement-filled Manhattan. Now the once-suburban borough is home to a bustling immigrant population, but there is not enough residential space to accommodate it.

Barriers to enforcement

According to Department of Buildings spokesman Tony Sclafani, the city now receives about 20,000 complaints related to illegal conversions each year, up from 8,000 in 1997. Neighbors, tenants, community boards and businesses can file an anonymous complaint through 311, which the department is legally required to respond to with an inspection.

New legislation introduced by State Senator José Peralta, a Democrat who represents parts of Queens, would impose fines of up to $2,500 on property owners who violate residential occupancy limits for financial gain.

“The only way to stop this extremely unsafe practice is by increasing inspections and fining and/or prosecuting owners who are breaking the law and profiting from creating unsafe and in some cases deadly conditions,” a spokeswoman for Peralta wrote in an e-mail response to questions from City Limits.

But community advocates caution that adding buildings inspectors—the city currently employs 370—or slapping another fine on owners and landlords isn’t a surefire way to curtail illegal occupancy.

A 2008 study on New York’s illegal housing market by the Pratt Center and Chhaya, a Queens-based nonprofit that aims to improve housing, found that, “Penalizing owners has had little impact on the housing underground. In 1997, the City increased penalties for illegal conversions, but there was no reduction in complaints.”

Department of Buildings spokesman Sclafani notes residents and property owners are not required by law to allow an inspector access to their home. If a resident is not home, an inspector leaves a notice and attempts a second visit. If the inspector again has no success, the case is closed, or the department can request a warrant.

A July 2009 comptroller’s audit found that inspectors in Queens, which receives more illegal conversion complaints than any other borough, were able to gain access to just 40 percent of the properties that received complaints. And department data shows that inspectors have obtained only 140 access warrants citywide since 2002—a number housing experts say is low due to the often missing visual evidence of an illegal conversion needed to meet the court’s requirements.

Legalize it?

Seema Agnani, Chhaya’s executive director, says there are other options communities can take to combat the problem.

A 2008 Chhaya study conducted in the Jackson Heights and Briarwood-Jamaica sections of Queens found that 35 percent of the 446 homes surveyed had an accessory unit—such as a basement apartment—that could potentially be legalized. Agnani says working within the limits of the existing housing stock is a cost-effective alternative to building new affordable housing, and preserves the integrity of the neighborhood. Additionally, city planners could better account for a neighborhood’s service needs if these units and residents were officially counted.

In order to do this, a new category of residence would have to be added to the housing code that would permit apartments in basements less than 50 percent below ground. Agnani says the city could offer tax incentives to property owners who make the necessary renovations.

Advocates say discussions about illegal housing can’t end after a fire’s flames go out.

“Whenever there is a fire, talk of increasing penalizations comes up, but not where the people should go,” says CHPC policy analyst Sarah Watson. “You have to open people’s minds about different forms of housing and then go through each law and code and advocate for change.”