New Yorkers who withstood the flooding inside their basement apartments—often unauthorized conversions that do not meet city safety standards—now face new hardships and fears, like dangerous mold, future flooding, and the abrupt loss of housing.

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Officials toured a flooded street in Queens the day after the storm, where tenants were killed by floods in a basement apartment.

The dining table was floating next to the steps when Vicente Guerrero came home Wednesday night. His children’s birth certificates, rent money he planned to give his landlord the next day, a few hundred dollars of savings, tax forms, files, clothes and food—all of it submerged in the dark water inside his three-bedroom basement apartment.

Guerrero, 39, shared the unit in Flushing with two roommates who left after first seeing the floodwaters. He locked the doors to his apartment and called a friend who let him spend the night. There was nothing he could do or save during the storm.

The next day, he dropped off a few bags at his ex-wife’s house. He is now homeless.

“I was out there risking my life working without knowing what was going on here at home,” said Guerrero, a food delivery worker and immigrant from Mexico, as he pointed out how high the water had reached inside the apartment.

“This red shirt you see me wearing belongs to my son. Jeans, shoes as well. I have nothing,” he said while packing up a small suitcase for a temporary stay at a local church.

An historic storm poured water into basement apartments across New York City Wednesday, killing 13 people, including a 2-year-old boy and his parents, while leaving an untold number of underground tenants like Guerrero newly homeless. New Yorkers who withstood the flooding inside their basement homes—often unauthorized conversions that do not meet city safety standards—now face new hardships and fears, like dangerous mold, future flooding, and the abrupt loss of housing.

All six properties where Wednesday’s fatalities took place were basement or cellar units, and five were illegal conversions, city officials said. Under current city rules, tenants in illegally converted basement apartments have little legal recourse to hold onto their homes.

“There are few resources when you’re living in the shadow of the law,” said attorney Sateesh Nori, the head of Legal Aid’s Queens Housing Unit.

Nori and other advocates say the lethal storm should prompt New York City to overhaul its approach to basement units, and spur actions to bring illegal apartments up to code or find tenants safer homes.

There are likely tens of thousands of such apartments across the five boroughs, attracting low-income renters, particularly immigrants, who have few other affordable options in the country’s most expensive housing market. The units can be extremely unsafe, often lacking windows or a second exit in case of fire or other emergency. There have been numerous fatal fires over the years in such apartments, but the city has not addressed the reality of their widespread use as cheap homes, said Annetta Seecharran, the executive director of Chhaya Community Development Corporation.

“We have a real problem here and we need leadership to step up,” Seecharran said.

Chhaya founded the Basement Apartments Safe for Everyone (BASE) Campaign in 2008 to advocate for the city to increase the number of legally-recognized, safe basement apartments by helping property owners improve the conditions. 

In the short-term, the city should secure suitable accommodations for tenants displaced by the flood, Seecharran said.

“One, we need to figure out temporary homes for all the tenants who are displaced,” Seecharran continued. “And two, we need practical help for landlords because mold becomes an immediate problem, and it’s an extremely expensive problem for homeowners.”

But many landlords are unlikely to seek cleanup help when they could face penalties. Tenants are also reticent about drawing attention to their plight because it means they could become homeless. 

Most basement apartments in New York City are illegal, and officials from the Department of Buildings, Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and other city agencies will vacate the homes and fine property owners if they discover an unregulated unit. 

A pilot program intended to bring basement units up to code in East New York and Cypress Hills fell victim to budget cuts last year, despite pleas from advocates who said the initiative helped New Yorkers most impacted by the COVID crisis. “It’s now more important than ever to help modernize and bring up to code informal basement apartment units, where living conditions may put people at risk of disease transmission,” dozens of nonprofits wrote in a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio last year.

But the conversions turned out to be more complicated and costly to carry out than anticipated, officials said last year. At the time, the city had only approved nine homeowners to participate in the pilot program, which received 8,000 applications. 

“It’s an incredibly difficult situation,” de Blasio said during a press briefing Friday. “Trying to make an illegal basement apartment up to code is very difficult physically, very costly and takes a lot of cooperation with the homeowner.” 

One of the men who died Wednesday, retired construction worker Roberto Bravo, lived in a Cypress Hills basement with two roommates. He was trapped by the sudden surge of water and could not escape.

Seecharran said she has urged de Blasio to publicly direct agencies not to fine landlords so that they can seek city flood remediation help without consequences. After that, the city can work with landlords to ensure the basement units are safe and inhabitable, she said.

“We’re trying to push the city to make a statement saying, ‘If you need help, get help and we will not fine you for having an illegal basement apartment,’” she said.

In the wake of the flood disaster, a City Hall official said the city will not assess fines to landlords and will instead issue “notices of deficiency” before returning to check the safety of the units.

But the city still reserves the right to eject tenants and shut down the apartments, the official said. 

Mayor de Blasio on Friday said the city will be crafting a new rain response plan, which will specifically look to address the risks of basement apartments, including an effort to identify how many are currently in use and where they’re located. 

The American Red Cross will assist some people displaced by the storm by putting them up in a hotel for up to five days. Red Cross spokesperson Michael de Vulpillieres said the organization has so far provided housing to about 20 families.

“Our teams are out in the field doing damage assessment to identify additional families in need of help,” de Vulpillieres said. The Red Cross is also helping flood-impacted New Yorkers secure new medication prescriptions, seek counseling and connect with other groups for long-term support. 

City agencies will also make social service referrals, but if the individual or family cannot find housing, they may have to enter the shelter system, an official acknowledged.

Following the floods, some tenants and property owners did work together to clean up and salvage apartments, said Jagpreet Singh, a Queens-based community organizer who worked on the BASE Campaign.

Singh said he visited family and friends dealing with the aftermath of the flooding at three apartments. In each case, landlords were responsive. But that’s not always the case, especially when a property owner lives elsewhere or the building is owned by a larger company, he said.

Tenants in illegal basement apartments cannot get renters insurance and may have no legal claim to the unit, fueling a dependence on landlord beneficence. 

“It really depends on what kind of relationship they have with their landlords,” Singh said. “If they’re in an unauthorized unit, they can’t call 311 and report damages.”

“Until there’s legalization, there’s not much that can be done,” he added.

Singh said some nonprofit groups and legal service providers can help prod property owners into covering losses or ensuring units are safe and inhabitable following the flood. He recommended that tenants contact Chhaya. Make the Road New York also provides support and assistance. 

Without action, more renters may suffer the same tragic fate as the 11 New Yorkers who died trying to escape the floodwaters in their homes Wednesday. The climate crisis will only fuel more intense storms and frequent flooding, experts say. 

 “We all know that people who are living in these apartments are vulnerable to exploitation, to displacement and now to natural disaster,” Nori said.