Out-Of-Town Owner Had no Idea Burned Brooklyn House Was Rented Out as a Hotel

NY Daily News - May 15, 2011

by Ben Chapman and Tina Moore

The North Carolina grandmother who owns the Brooklyn building where a fast-moving blaze killed two men Friday said she had no idea the house was being rented out as a hotel.

"I am just so hurt," Betty Rodgers, 66, told The News yesteday after learning of the deaths. "I am just, oh, lord."

Rodgers, of Washington, N.C., said Willy Bell, 60, was watching the three-story Bushwick house for her and assured her recently that nobody else was living there.

"He called me a couple months ago and said, 'Everything's just fine, don't worry,'" the grandmother of five said. "Apparently he was telling me that to keep me up here so I wouldn't see."

The city logged three illegal conversion complaints at the 16 Covert St. building in October, November and December. The complaints said the building was converted into rooms that were being illegally rented.

"Technically they're all illegal conversions," Department of Buildings spokesman Tony Sclafani said of the complaints.

DOB inspectors visited the house six times between Oct. 29, 2010, and March 8, records show. Each time, they noted they were unable to get inside.

After the last try, the city sent a letter to Rodgers, Sclafani said.

"When access is denied, they will post a sign at the door and mail a letter to the property owner," he said.

Inspectors found no evidence of illegal walls after the fire but doors had been added in the building, officials said.

Rodgers said she knew nothing about the complaints or inspection attempts.

"I don't know why he would even have anybody staying there," she said about Bell. "I didn't give him permission to rent nothing to nobody.

"It's very sad, it's very sad. I never knew anything about this."

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn called for a hearing to examine how the city can improve inspectors' access to buildings.

"Reports of the fire that erupted in Bushwick last night are extremely troubling," the statement said. "Even more concerning is the fact that this building had been reported for having illegal conversions and that inspectors were unable to gain access."

Quinn, Councilman Erik Dilan and Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley were forming a task force to improve the process of obtaining warrants, the statement said.

Bell, a retired roofer, said he allowed people from the neighborhood who didn't have steady jobs to live in the two top floors.

"I just did it from my heart to help people," Bell said. "They were down on their luck."

Bell said he lived in the building alone for years but started taking in boarders a couple years ago to pay for utilities.

"This way they pay for the water and the light bill," he said.

He said he never told Rodgers other people were living there but she had to be aware.

"She had to know - how else did we pay the bills? She didn't send us money," he said.

Bell said there were nine units in the building and that he paid no rent.

"When people had money, they paid me. When they didn't, they got a free ride," said Bell, adding that he didn't see anything illegal in what he was doing.

Bell said he lived on the block for 40 years and that he is a deacon at the Hudson Temple across the street at 81 Covert St.

He said when he came up short to pay for the utilities on the house the church would give him money to cover the shortfall.

Four years ago, the church gave him money to pay off an $8,000 tax lien on the property.

He said Rodgers hadn't visited the property in years.

"I just looked after the building for the lady," Bell said. "Nobody is supposed to live there but me."