The deadly flooding brought to New York City by the remnants of Hurricane Ida has sparked conversations among policymakers about the tens of thousands of New Yorkers living in dangerous and likely illegal basement apartments. As City and State reported last week, basement apartments are defined as those where at least half the unit is above grade, as opposed to cellars, in which most of the unit is underground. Basement apartments can legally be lived in, while cellars generally cannot.
Many basement apartments in New York City are likely not in compliance with housing regulations, and activists have been advocating for decades for the legalization of basement apartments and the provision of resources to homeowners so illegal basement apartments can be brought up to code. As the City and State report describes, one such advocacy group is Basement Apartments for Everyone, which recently called upon New York City to provide funding for homeowners to convert basements into livable apartments, and to allow cellars to be legally habitable. A report published by BASE also proposes the establishment of an “Office of Small Homes” which would help manage the conversion of basement apartments, as well as “regulatory agreements” to protect basement apartment tenants. According to BASE, “Most tenants of illegal basements are low-income families, gig workers, seniors, or undocumented residents,” many of whom fear that the legalization of basement apartments would lead to higher rents and ultimately their own displacement. “Tenants should not have to choose between unaffordable rents and poor living conditions,” BASE argues.
At the state level, New York assemblyman Harvey Epstein told City and State that the government should offer homeowners “a financial mechanism” to make basement apartments “a legal and viable housing solution.” He and state senator Pete Harckham proposed a bill that would do this, but the bill did not leave committee. Epstein criticized New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s lax approach to the problem, calling for a multi-agency task force to face it. At the city level, councilwoman Darma Diaz also called for financial support to convert basement apartments, and said she’s asked de Blasio to “immediately restore funding” to a pilot program for conversions in East New York that suffered heavy budget guts during the pandemic. “Unfortunately, the city of New York has a history of only responding to issues instead of being proactive,” she told City and State. “And if we would have taken a corrective approach, years ago. I truly believe that we could have avoided the deaths that we saw this past week.”
More information about the issue of basement and cellar apartments in New York City is available via City and State.