“I haven’t slept at all, I panic every time it pours hard rain,” one basement tenant in Brooklyn told City Limits after water began to breach her apartment early Friday morning. 

Marc A. Hermann / MTA

Flooded roads in Gowanus, Brooklyn on Sept. 29, 2023.

Heavy rain pummeled New York City on Friday, leading to flash floods and prompting state of emergency declarations from both the mayor and the governor on what officials say was the wettest day the city’s seen since 2021, when deadly Hurricane Ida swept through.

The extreme weather, housing advocates say, is a reminder of the risks climate change poses to tenants in the estimated tens of thousands of unregulated basement or cellar apartments across the city. While no fatalities were reported as of early Friday afternoon, emergency responders had conducted six rescues at flooded basement units, officials said in a press briefing.

And while it’s been more than two years since Ida killed 13 residents, 11 of them in basement or cellar apartments,* tenants who live in New York’s subgrade homes have yet to see legalization or significant safety improvements, advocates charged.

“Today’s heavy rainfalls and flash flooding are predictable emergencies, yet the City and State remain unprepared to protect New Yorkers—especially those living in basement apartments,” members of the NYC Basement Apartments Safe for Everyone (BASE) coalition said in a statement Friday. “Protecting the tens of thousands of New Yorkers who rely on basement apartments for affordable housing must start with legalization.”

One tenant in Sunset Park—who asked City Limits not to reveal her name—received a flash flooding alert before 10 a.m. By then, she and her 2-year-old son were already at her brother’s house, a couple of blocks from the basement where she, her husband and their three children have lived for eight years. 

The landlord told her two years ago during Ida that he could not control the rain, and that it was best for her and her family to leave the basement in bad weather. Now she gets anxious with every downpour.

“I haven’t slept at all, I panic every time it pours hard rain,” the woman, 43, told City Limits in Spanish. The apartment began to flood early Friday morning, she said, with water coming through the back door where the basement connects to the yard. 

“At about 7:40 a.m. the water started to come in,” the woman said. “I pushed it out with a pot, but my son started to come closer and get wet, so I took my important papers and left the apartment.” 

Legislation that would allow the city to more easily overhaul its zoning and building code rules for basement units failed to pass in Albany this spring, during a legislative session where lawmakers were bitterly divided over efforts to increase housing density statewide.

But legalizing basement and cellar homes, supporters say, would both boost the city’s available housing stock and lead to additional protections for tenants, potentially mandating safety features like backwater valves and flood sensors.

“You can’t legally upgrade these spaces because they’re occupied contrary to the law,” said Howard Slatkin, a former deputy at the New York City Department of City Planning and now executive director of the Citizens Housing & Planning Council (CHPC), a BASE member.

“And one of the big things about being able to help people in an emergency [is]… they don’t want to come out of the woodwork because it threatens their ability to have a home,” he added.

Earlier efforts to upgrade basement apartments in New York City have shown how difficult it can be under existing state law. 

A pilot program the city launched in 2019, intended to create safe basement apartments in Brooklyn’s East New York and Cypress Hills, ultimately impacted just a handful of properties. Officials said the work was more complicated and costly than anticipated, reaching as much as $1 million in some cases for a single conversion.

Legalization supporters say existing requirements under the state’s Multiple Dwelling Law are behind those high costs, and would need to be waived by Albany lawmakers to create an easier path forward. The law applies to properties with at least three units, meaning it kicks in when a two-family home seeks to legalize its basement or cellar. 

A newly-proposed city zoning amendment would legalize an extra apartment of up to 800 square feet for one- and two-family homes, and is meant to encourage Accessory Dwelling Units in yards, attics and basements. But, if passed, it too would run into MDL trouble.

“It’s got to happen this year,” said Annetta Seecharran, executive director at the Queens nonprofit Chhaya, another BASE Coalition member. State reforms, she added, would only be a first step in what she called the “mammoth” job of creating a legalization program at the city level. 

“I was here two years ago when Ida hit, walking around the neighborhood; I witnessed the devastation,” Seecharran said. “It’s exhausting and frustrating that two years later, there is no meaningful change.”

In the meantime, basement and cellar tenants—often low-income or immigrant New Yorkers who can’t afford other housing options—remain at risk. The tenant in Sunset Park, who sells artisan mugs, has stayed in the basement apartment even though she feels unsafe, as she’s unable to find another rental she can afford. 

To cope with rent increases in the last year, she had to rent out two of her three rooms, and now uses the living room as her bedroom. A puddle had breached her sleeping area by the time she returned home Friday afternoon. “Just on my merchandise, it’s about $1,000,” she said, calculating the price of the damage. 

Slatkin, of CHPC, said the problem boils down to “two interconnected, ongoing emergencies.” 

“A lack of housing overall, and the inability to address the safety needs of basement apartments,” he explained. “The reason people are living in basements and cellars is because there aren’t enough other places for them to live.”

To reach the editor behind this story, contact Jeanmarie@citylimits.org

*This story has been updated to correct the number of Hurricane Ida fatalities that took place in basement or cellar units; it was 11, not 13 as previously stated, according to a Comptroller’s Office report.