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Uncertain Future For NYC’s Program To Bring Dangerous Basement Apartments Up To Code

Uncertain Future For NYC’s Program To Bring Dangerous Basement Apartments Up To Code

Tropical storm Ida showed that when it comes to building regulations in New York, the stakes can be as high as life and death. That’s according to Council Member Inez Barron, who represents a large part of East New York in Brooklyn. She recently recounted the story of a family in her district with a basement apartment that is occupied by their son. 

As Ida dumped record rainfall on New York, they realized that surface water with nowhere else to go had started pouring down into their basement. 

“They ran downstairs to the apartment and their son was in a bedroom and couldn’t open the door,” Barron said. “It was his only egress so they had to break the door from the outside to get him out to safety.” 

Not everyone was so lucky. 

Eleven people died in similar circumstances during Hurricane Ida. The tragedy has brought renewed focus on the Basement Apartment Pilot Conversion Program, which was designed to tackle the thorny problem of making such apartments safer. The program passed in 2018 but Covd hit as it was getting up and running. As a result, the city’s 2019 budget cut the pilot program by 92%, from nearly $12 million to $90,000. 

“That was disappointing, especially in the light of Hurricane Ida, which was a wake-up call to the danger of these apartments,” Barron said. 

The units exist for a reason. Their occupants are often undocumented New Yorkers who work for less than minimum wage. “In my district, the median income is $37,000 for a family of three,” Barron said. “But the people in these apartments are even below that threshold—or they’re unemployed and desperate for housing.” 

A coalition of advocacy groups estimates that 114,000 basements in the city could be converted to legal dwellings. They are mostly found in outer-borough homes that are one or two-stories tall. But bringing them up to code presents a conundrum. If a landlord spends their own money to make an apartment safer and more livable, they will probably need to raise the rent. That usually means the tenants will be forced to look elsewhere for shelter in a city with a severe shortage of affordable housing.

The pilot program offers financial assistance and regulatory relief to homeowners with illegal apartments. The dwellings would be made legal by adding upgrades like proper drainage, an automatic sprinkler system, and an additional exit. Housing advocates had high hopes for the pilot—if it showed merit, perhaps it would be expanded to cover all 131,000 of the city’s illegal basement apartments.

But those hopes have dwindled to almost nothing. City building inspectors identified 8,000 households in East New York that would be eligible for the program. Three thousand landlords were approached and 1,000 of them expressed interest. But with the budget cut, the program has been reduced to helping a mere eight landlords do upgrades.

Jessica Katz, executive director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, said red tape is as large an obstacle as cost for homeowners who want to bring their basement apartments up to code. 

“It’s a deal breaker,” she said about a city bureaucracy so thick it often takes lawyers and architects to cut through it. “Ideally you’d instead have a regulatory framework whereby a lay person with a tape measure could answer questions like, ‘Is my ceiling tall enough? Is my window big enough? Is my door wide enough? What else is required to make my basement safer so I don’t have to hire 20 consultants to even assess whether or not this might be worth taking on?’” 

READ MORE: Why NYC Was So Unprepared For Hurricane Ida’s Flash Flooding

City Council Member Brad Lander was the lead sponsor of the bill that created the pilot program. He said that though the results are paltry, he’s hoping it leads to a citywide effort to legalize basement apartments while keeping them affordable. He’d like to see it modeled on the city’s loft law of 1982, which gave landlords time to conform their illegal residences to the city’s building code.

“No one got kicked out into the street while the loft units were made safer,” he said. The law established a Loft Board that oversaw the lengthy conversion of commercial and manufacturing spaces into rent-stabilized residential units that met minimum standards of safety and fire protection. 

Lander said the city should launch a similar program for illegal basement units. “Let’s bring these apartments and their occupants on to the books and require some immediate but affordable steps to make them safer—like fire alarms and backflow preventers to halt stormwater flooding.” 

He added that such a program would have the benefit of granting basic rights to tenants, such as protection from sudden eviction. “On top of that, the city would also know where the apartments are located so we could give tenants notice that a storm like Ida was coming. So many people should not have to die,” he said.