‘In one of the most expensive housing markets in the country, people will continue to rent basement apartments whether they are legal or not. We need legalization to make them safe.’

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

New York lawmakers tour flood-damaged homes following Hurricane Ida.

Earlier this month, record setting rainfall from tropical storm Ida turned New York’s streets into rivers and rushed into subterranean apartments, drowning residents. Of the 13 New Yorkers who lost their lives in Hurricane Ida, at least 11 lived in basement apartments.

Many of New York’s basement apartments are illegally or informally rented because they don’t meet the city’s complex standards for legal occupancy. Estimates indicate that tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers live in illegal basement or cellar units, which are unregulated and potentially unsafe. After these deaths, the city can’t afford to outlaw and ignore basement apartments; they should do the opposite: legalize and regulate more basement apartments to keep New Yorkers safe and create affordable housing.

In one of the most expensive housing markets in the country, people will continue to rent basement apartments whether they are legal or not. We need legalization to make them safe. New Yorkers choose potentially dangerous basement apartments because they can’t afford more expensive alternatives. New York’s rents have rebounded to a median $2,675/month after dipping through the peak of the COVID-19 crisis. They will continue to rise as market rate housing construction started off the year slow and affordable housing takes time to build.

Dangerous basements are a symptom of the larger housing crisis in New York where over 29 percent of households spend half their income on housing; 78 percent of extremely low income households, like families of four or more who make $35,790 or less, spend half their income or more on rent. With limited affordable units available, low-income tenants look elsewhere for housing, including illegal and dangerous basement units. Without these basement units, which fill a crucial hole in the low-income housing market, the outlook for low-income renters would be worse and more would experience homelessness.

The city piloted a program in East New York to bring illegal apartments up to code, but the program had its budget slashed during COVID. Advocates say that current legalization efforts are focused on compliance, not meeting the needs of tenants and landlords. Some landlords don’t create legal units because of the onerous restrictions, high costs, and time consuming process of applying. Under the current system, legalization requires meeting specific zoning rules, unnecessary parking mandates, and highly specific unit dimensions. The current rules scare off basement apartment landlords, who are largely outer-borough homeowners who live above the units, not large corporate investors. Landlords in this situation fear piping up to legalize their basement units because they could lose their rental income or pay fines. 

READ MORE: City’s Basement Apartment Program Buried by COVID-19 Budget Cuts

The risk to New Yorkers will only rise in the coming years. More frequent severe weather from climate change threatens more homes with flooding each year. Climate Central and the National Housing Trust estimate that the number of low-income homes at risk of flooding will triple by 2050, with New York among the states with the most units threatened.

Critics want to crack down on basement apartments they feel are unsafe and lead to overcrowding. But cracking down on basement apartments won’t stop people who have no other housing option. Some units may never be safely inhabitable. Others could become safer with retrofitting or additional safety measures. And by relaxing regulatory standards, safe apartments that don’t currently meet the city’s strict standards could be added to the affordable housing stock.

Legalization helps the city know which units are which. The city can change the burdensome legalization regulations, incentivize landlords with basement units to legalize them by making the process easier, fund basement conversion programs, and eliminate penalties for landlords who want to add their basements to the market.

If done right, legalization is a win-win. It will keep more New Yorkers safe and add needed, safe, affordable housing to the city’s stock. The city should act swiftly to make basement apartments legal or the consequences of the next storm could be worse.

Patrick Spauster is a housing researcher and Master’s of Urban Planning candidate at NYU Wagner.