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Data reveals Department of Buildings' struggle to inspect illegally converted homes

Data reveals NYC DOB's struggle to inspect illegally converted homes
Data reveals NYC DOB's struggle to inspect illegally converted homes 04:05

NEW YORK -- Illegally converted homes have long been decried as potential death traps, yet CBS2 found that when inspectors get complaints about illegal apartments, they can't even get into the building about two-thirds of the time.

City inspectors responded to more than 13,000 complaints about this last year, but people only let them in about 4,700 times, and sometimes even when they do get in, it's not enough to fix the problem.

Where there are boarded up windows today, Bekaye Toure felt scalding flames in January. He suffered burns after escaping from the blaze in the Soundview section of The Bronx.

Prosecutors say a 15-year-old girl started the fire, which killed another man who lived in the building.

"Thank God my wife and my baby wasn't here," Toure said.

CBS2 has learned that, years ago, the two-family home was illegally converted into eight single rooms or apartments -- a dangerous practice that can make it harder for people to get out during a fire.

"Do you think that affected your ability to escape?" CBS2 investigative reporter Tim McNicholas asked.

"Yes," Toure said.

"How so?" McNicholas asked.

"Because there's no other exit except the window. And the fire happened in the hallway," Toure said.

This is far from the only home with illegal conversions. Last year alone, the city's Department of Buildings fielded more than 13,800 complaints about illegally converted buildings.

But most of the time, when inspectors tried to investigate those complaints, the residents either didn't answer the door or wouldn't let the inspectors inside.

Each year for the last five years, inspectors have been able to gain access 29-34% of the time, but it wasn't always that way; data obtained by CBS2 shows in 2011, they gained access about 47% of the time.

"I'm just surprised that this is still a problem 12 years later. It's a shame," former New York City Council member Oliver Koppell said.

That access rate wasn't enough for Koppell, who is still frustrated today that the buildings department closes complaints if inspectors can't get in on their third try.

"I put in legislation to require them to go to court and get a court order to access the apartment, but the legislation didn't pass at that time," he said.

In Soundview, inspectors did gain access, and even that didn't solve the problems. Back in 2018, years before the fire, the city issued a full vacate order to the landlord because of the illegal conversion. No one should have been there, but Toure says he lived there for about five years until the fire.

"Did you realize when you rented it that it was illegally converted?" McNicholas asked.

"No, I did not know that," Toure said.

CBS2 couldn't find the landlord at his home, but in a phone call the next day, a man claiming to be him told us he stopped collecting rent and tried to get the tenants out, but he said he never took the matter to court for evictions.

Toure claims tenants only stopped paying rent about two years ago because the landlord wouldn't fix various problems.

"Financially, I couldn't afford an apartment, so I had to move in like that," he said.

But staying there wound up costing him much more than money.

The buildings department says ensuring safety is a top priority, and it's up to landlords to fix violations and ensure vacate orders are complied with.

The department would not sit down for an interview, but they did answer many of our questions via email and sent the following statement:

Ensuring that New Yorkers have safe and legal places to live, is one of our highest priorities at DOB. We have a unit at the Department dedicated specifically to investigate suspected illegal conversions, and every complaint we receive is investigated. We urge all New Yorkers to protect themselves and their families by avoiding these dangerous living situations, and reporting them to us by filing an official 311 complaint.

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