By Sam Zachar and Andrea Pineda-Salgado
Eleven of the 13 people who died in last week’s storm were trapped in flooding basements across the city. The majority of the dead were immigrants who rented apartments below ground, a common but oft-illegal practice (among not just immigrants but across all five boroughs and many demographics). We wanted to zoom out a bit and understand basement housing a bit better BUT before we do, one thing:
We have been receiving a handful of queries from neighbors who lost everything. Now they seek replacement furniture, clothing and, importantly, housing. If you think you can help, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The rent in a basement is usually lower and that’s why some of us risk ourselves living in a basement. You never know what could happen, but it’s a risk that we take; we have no choice.”
Epicenter-NYC also spoke with Angelica, who along with her husband and three children has been living in a basement apartment in Corona, Queens, for eight years. They are both originally from Mexico, and work as a housekeeper and in a supermarket, respectively. The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Epicenter: Why did you decide to live in a basement apartment?
Angelica: I didn’t choose to, I had to. It was the only option because renting an apartment with three kids is not easy and not affordable [she pays $1,475 per month]. There is never enough light and it’s very cold in the winter, very cold. And even during the day you need to have the lights on most of the time. A similarly located and sized non-basement apartment would cost about $1,000 more per month.
Epicenter: Tell us about your experience during Ida?
Angelica: I wasn’t really aware and I wasn’t expecting it to be as bad as it was. So I never imagined the basement was going to get flooded. It happened so fast that we just had enough time to lift some furniture. And we have no choice but just to be patient and start getting the water out in buckets. It was bad because we didn’t know when it was going to stop. In less than five minutes the water was all over the basement, the two bedrooms everywhere. We were there from 10:30 p.m. to 1 or to 2 a.m. trying to clean everything.
Epicenter: Did the storm change your mind about living in a basement?
Angelica: No, because right now it’s very hard and it’s not affordable to find an apartment the size of the basement that I have right now. I guess I would rather stay where I am and I know when it rains we have to just get ready. Of course, at the moment you feel desperate, you feel upset, but I won’t move because I can’t afford to.
Epicenter: What can be done to make your living situation better?
Angelica:I think that basement apartments should be legalized as long as they have the requirements to be safe for people to live in because they are not usually as expensive as regular apartments. Even though sometimes it is hard to make sure the place is safe, for fires and everything because the hardest place to get to in case of an emergency is the basement. We are always at risk because we are right next to the boilers. Basements are not the best places to live, but some families don’t have a choice. The rent in a basement is usually lower and that’s why some of us risk ourselves living in a basement. You never know what could happen, but it’s a risk that we take; we have no choice.
So, what exactly are basement apartments?
A basement is a story of a building partly below the curb, according to the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, with at least one-half of its height above curb level. Any space with less than one half of its height above curb level is considered a cellar. The website also says that basements are illegal to rent or occupy, unless they meet certain requirements, and have received approval from the city’s Department of Buildings. Cellars in one- and two-family homes can never be lawfully rented. Some of the requirements that must be met include, the ceiling being a minimum of seven feet high and every room having at least one window.
There are at least 50,000 of illegal basement units, with more than 100,000 people living in them in New York City. Many basement apartments do not meet the requirements to be considered legal dwellings, and those who live in them do not bring their apartement’s issues to the city’s attention for fear of being evicted or deported.
Epicenter-NYC asked Shahana Hanif, the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants who is running to represent Brooklyn’s 39th District in the New York City Council, an area acutely affected by the lack of affordable housing. “Our housing crisis disproportionately impacts communities of color, working-class communities, non-English speaking communities, people with disabilities, homeowners, basement apartment dwellers, tenants and anyone that isn’t a luxury real estate developer,” she said.
Even before last week’s flooding, basement apartments have been considered dangerous. In a New York Times article published in 2019, reporters described basement apartments in New York City as “illicitly constructed with narrow hallways, windowless bedrooms, shaky walls and electrical wiring strung together like knotted shoelaces.”
But, for many dwellers, they are necessary, perhaps providing the only affordable option.
Who is fighting for the legalization of basement apartments?
We cannot look away from three crises:
- A lack of affordable housing
- The effects of climate change
It seems more urgent than ever to increase the number of legally-recognized, safe, healthy, and affordable basement apartments. Organizations, such as Chhaya and the Pratt Center for Community Development, are working toward this goal through their Basement Apartments Safe for Everyone (BASE) Campaign. The BASE Campaign is aimed at helping low-income communities, essential workers, communities of color, and immigrants gain access to these more affordable housing options. Chhaya maintains: “Basement units are a vital part of the city’s affordable housing stock. We need to find safe and secure ways to formalize these units to make them legally recognized.”
Hanif supports this path for basements and also says there must be outreach among landlords, too: “…legally protecting the creation of basement apartments means protecting homeowners from penalties. The City must invest in culturally informed and language accessible outreach to inform homeowners about what the regulations are and how they can be compliant.”
What is the city doing about it?
In the days following Wednesday’s flooding, Mayor De Blasio announced that the city will issue travel bans more quickly and will go door-to-door to evacuate the residents of basement apartments before future storms. The mayor guaranteed that 911 and emergency responders will not ask about documentation status and that their goal is to save lives. (As we’ve seen with vaccines, one of the issues with having significant populations in the shadows is that a stance of good intentions is not enough. We have to undo decades of damage and neglect now.)
There’s also the Basement Apartment Conversion Pilot Program, run by New York City housing and a local nonprofit, Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation. The program provides eligible homeowners with loans to convert their basement or cellar into a safe, legal, and rentable apartment. The stated goal of this pilot program is to help create safe housing for tenants, while providing homeowners with the opportunity to earn rental income.
Are the city’s efforts enough?
The mayor’s plan to increase the severity of travel ban announcements and going door-to-door in order to evacuate basement apartment residents was immediately met with criticism. Annetta Seecharran, executive director at Chhaya, told Epicenter-NYC that the city’s plan is unrealistic. “Vacate orders do not solve the problem … we need to quickly figure out how to house people in hotels so they don’t go into the shelter system. We need to support homeowners in bringing their homes up to code,” she said, adding that the city can and should be doing this.
Queens Borough President Donovan Richards told PIX 11: “What can be done about it is the production of real affordable housing.”
The Basement Apartment Conversion Pilot Program was launched in 2019, but the mayor cut 92% of its funding in 2020 due to financial pressures from Covid. Hindsight, of course, is everything. “Had basement apartments been legalized, tenants would’ve been afforded the same legal protections as tenants in other types of apartments,” Hanif said, ”and would’ve been able to call 311 or exercise their legal rights without fear of eviction or penalizing their landlord.”