The Queens housing squeeze
By Amy Goldstein, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism
The skinny townhouses stretch like a two-story, multicolored fence along 121st Street in Richmond Hill. All 31 houses, covered by aluminum siding, are attached. They share plumbing and electrical wiring. None has a driveway; some have three or four doorbells.
The street between 107th and 109th avenues squeezes 55 houses into a row as long as a Manhattan avenue block. And that is just one of many densely populated blocks in the community. The housing squeeze is matched by traffic congestion. Parking is almost impossible to find on these narrow, unswept, one-way streets.
This block and others south of Liberty Avenue in Richmond Hill are crowded because the zoning rules are vague, said Beatrice Ammann-Priest, a planner for the Queens Department of City Planning. More than 40 years ago, “certain zones were created, but they were very general,” Ammann-Priest said. “It allows single family, multi-family, attached, semi-detached, detached … all building types,” she said.
As a result, Ammann-Priest said, having 31 attached rowhouses along one side of a block is legal because no laws say otherwise.
This type of development in Richmond Hill, as well as in much of Southeast Queens, frustrates some local politicians and community residents. Some say developers continue to tear down single-family homes to replace them with several smaller homes or multistory apartment buildings.
“People need space,” said Chan Jamoona of the United Hindu Cultural Center in Richmond Hill. “Even though we have a shortage of homes, I prefer if we kept it so people have some space.”
The overdevelopment has spiked up housing costs and mortgages in Richmond Hill, where the average cost of a small, multistory townhouse is $500,000, according to Edwin Basdeo, a Realtor at NMCRA Connectors Realty on Liberty Avenue. He said the price of such a home had surged for several years, but has been relatively stable the past few months.
The higher costs have led Richmond Hill residents to rent out rooms or floors to minimize the cost. For example, the two-story residential townhouse at 107-34 121 St. in Richmond Hill has four doorbells; one family lives in the attic, another on the second floor, a third on the first floor and a fourth in the basement.
To make matters worse, some residents convert their homes illegally, without approval from the New York City Department of Buildings. According to numbers found on the Department of Buildings Web site, 151 complaints against illegal conversions in Richmond Hill townhouses were filed in September, and more than half the cases are still open.
The Department of Buildings responds to illegal division reports as soon as they are filed, spokeswoman Tori Edmiston said. “We send an inspector up to see whether it’s illegal, then we issue violations if it is.”
Robert Singh can confirm that. Singh, of 104-34 123rd St., allowed his sister and niece to live in his basement until 2002. That’s when the Department of Buildings entered Singh’s home and slapped him with a $5,300 fine.
“People depend on their basements,” Singh, who immigrated to Richmond Hill in 1994, said. “I’m paying off a 30-year mortgage. If I could convert my basement and rent it out legally, then I’d be able to pay off more of the mortgage each month. But I can’t because I can’t afford another fine.”