When the remnants of Hurricane Ida rolled through New York last week, they took a heavy toll: 46 lives, with six people still missing as of September 3rd. Of those deaths, 25 were in New Jersey, 16 in New York, four occurred in Pennsylvania, and Connecticut saw a single fatality, according to the New York Times. The majority of New York City’s 13 deaths occurred in basement apartments, spurring Mayor Bill de Blasio to announce that in advance of future potential flooding events, city workers “would go door-to-door in neighborhoods with high concentrations of such apartments and evacuate residents.” That announcement, of course, came too late for the victims of last week’s tragic flash floods, many of whom found themselves trapped as the waters rose.
One of those victims was Robert Bravo of Brooklyn, who reportedly screamed for help as he struggled to withstand the rising waters in what the New York Times described as a “windowless bedroom” decorated with a flag from his native Ecuador. The 66-year-old immigrant came to the United States in the 1980s, said his brother, who owned the building. Before his health took a turn in recent years, he worked in the construction and house painting industries. His brother said a building inspector once told him the basement apartment was not legal.
This is often the case with basement apartments, as the Times notes. While many people live in them, the majority do not comply with city housing regulations, and “often lack basic safety features like more than one way to get out” in the event of emergencies like a fire. At least 11 of the 13 people who died during last week’s storm lived in such units. Another was Darlene Lee, a 48 year old Queens woman who became pinned between her basement apartment’s steel door and doorframe as floodwaters consumed her unit. Her property manager reportedly heard her crying for help. While other people tried to rescue her, they were not successful.
“The law governing these apartments is complex, and includes rules that say a basement’s ceilings must be at least 7 feet 6 inches high and that living spaces must have a window,” according to the Times. They cannot legally be rented before the city has awarded them a certificate of occupancy. New York City “received more than 157,000 complaints involving illegal conversions” of between January 2011 and September 2021, a term that includes basement apartments and other uses, but the majority of those cases “were closed after an inspector couldn’t gain access to the dwelling,” the Times found. At least 77,000 allegedly illegal conversions were in Queens.
One advocate for nonprofit housing told the Times that Hurricane Ida’s damage “highlights the housing crisis that we have that leads people to have to live in unsafe conditions in the first place, a code enforcement system that’s complaint-driven that wouldn’t necessarily be able to meet the needs of these tenants in such a situation, and a set of codes that make it very difficult to make the apartment safer.” The mayor’s office did not answer the Times’s questions.