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."
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