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City Empties Illegally Subdivided Queens House After 15-Year Battle

By Katie Honan | September 29, 2015 11:21am
 The Red Cross said they assisted eight families at this Corona home on Sept. 26. 
The Red Cross said they assisted eight families at this Corona home on Sept. 26. 
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DNAinfo/Katie Honan

CORONA — The city removed more than two-dozen people from apartments inside a home that's been cited for illegal subdivisions since 2000 — and was ordered shuttered six years ago by the Department of Buildings, officials said. 

There were 27 residents from eight families — including 13 children — living inside the two-story stucco home at 33-34 103rd St. when the building was evacuated on Sept. 26 by officials from the FDNY, the DOB and the Department of Education, according to officials.

The Red Cross provided temporary shelter for the families, and P.S. 92 was also opened as a temporary shelter site, according to Red Cross and DOE officials.

A spokesman for the Department of Buildings said it was illegal for anyone to be living in the building after Feb. 25, 2009, when inspectors ordered it vacated upon finding evidence of "illegal conversion" — which can mean adding additional walls, bathrooms or other subdivisions that violate the legal occupancy rates.

The apartments were ordered vacated as they lacked a second exit and sprinklers, DOB records show.

The house has been cited 11 times since 2000 for illegal subdivisions, including turning the basement from a storage area to an apartment, adding an additional bathroom to create a third apartment on the first floor and for carving out more than four additional apartments at the house, records show. 

Owners Lizz Mendoza and Ana Mena have paid a total of $35,000 in fines, according to DOB records. However, they continued renting out units, and still had a "For Rent" sign posted on the building as recently as Monday.

A building manager who gave only his first name, Pedro, answered the phone at the number listed on the sign Monday and said he rented the apartments to two families. He claimed he was shocked when he found out how many people were living inside.

"We are trying to figure out why people were forced out. We don't understand the problem. I'm trying to think of that many people living in the apartments. I can't fathom it," he said. 

"The house is just for families, six people each," he added. "Each apartment had three bedrooms. It seems to me they were letting people in on their own."

Pedro declined to say how much the rent was for each apartment, but said one of the families had stopped paying.

He also said he wasn't aware of the earlier partial vacate order on the home, saying building owner Mena bought it after 2009, when inspectors made their ruling. However, while the full deed was transferred to Mena in 2011, documents show she had her name on house records dating as far back as 2007.

When tenants had issues — like a leaky sink — he sent workers right away to fix them, Pedro said. The workers never reported back that there were that many people in the home, he noted. 

When reached by phone, one of the tenants, Felix, said he lived in the apartment with his wife and two babies but did not speak further about the living arrangements. 

Neighbors said they have seen the building full of tenants for a long time.

"People have been living there, there's always people coming in," said Bryan Pauta, 19, who has worked across the street as a mechanic for three years. "There's a lot of people there."

The DOB often has a hard time trying to cite homes for illegal conversions, especially in Queens, which has more than half of the city's subdivisions, the DOB said last year.

DOB inspectors visited the house in July 2009 after closing out the February illegal conversion complaint  when they received additional complaints about single-room occupancy apartments, but couldn't gain entry into the home after two attempts, records show. 

They received another complaint about illegal apartments in on March 17, 2015, and a month later inspectors cited the home's current owner for cracked stucco along the home's exterior wall.

Inspectors continued to try to gain entry to the home, making it as far as a room on the first floor on April 25, according to city records. But they couldn't make it any further. 

The agency has a last-resort option of getting a warrant to gain access to the home, but did not pursue it at the address, officials said. Nearly all of the warrants from the DOB are filed in Queens, a DOB official said.

Pauta said he's not surprised to hear about the crowded apartments.

"Rent is at skyrocketing prices and the salary is too low," he said, noting that it's difficult to rent a room in Corona for less than $700. 

He lives a few blocks away and said he's noticed rents have gone up in the past two years. 

"There's no way you can pay rent for $8 an hour."