A chance at Vital NYC housing reform

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Hurricane Ida’s silver lining: a chance for vital New York housing reform

by Johnluca Fenton
|28 October 2021

Flooding in the Bronx the day after Ida’s visit to New York. Credit: Jim Griffin

In early September, Hurricane Ida fatally drowned 11 New Yorkers in the so-called comforts of home. Only one of these tragedies occurred in an area classified at high risk of flooding.

All but one of the deaths occurred in an illegally converted basement apartment.

Unlike Hurricane Sandy, which caused its worst damage to coastal New York City in 2012, Ida’s greatest destruction was concentrated largely in areas of interior Queens that had suffered little from the storm surge that had proved so dangerous and deadly a decade earlier.

Like Sandy, however, Ida laid bare the key issues plaguing the underbelly of the New York metropolis. As the storm subsided and night turned to day, first responders and elected officials roaming the wreckage both made the same discoveries.

Ida and her record-breaking flood of over 7 inches of precipitation in the New York area brought to the fore another piece of the city’s ever-growing puzzle of climate response: the need to tackle its network. largely taboo of illegitimate basement apartments.

While New York recently claimed the dubious honor of having the the highest rental fees, low-income tenants have turned to converting the basements of single and two-family homes in the city’s outlying districts into makeshift living spaces. Municipal authorities estimate that more than 50,000 of them unofficial housing exists throughout the city and is home to over 100,000 of its residents.

The basement apartments are a tall order. They provide much-needed housing for many of the city’s most vulnerable populations, but they present inherent dangers for those same residents. Many basement apartments have only one entry and exit point and, therefore, present major fire hazards and, as Ida painfully pointed out, flash flood hazards. These apartments often do not meet regulatory standards for ventilation, heating and air conditioning.

So far, the city has largely swept the issue under the rug, choosing to loosely enforce regulations against basement apartments through a voluntary complaints system. This arrangement is often underutilized by apartment tenants, many of whom fear arrest, fines, even deportation if they had to file a complaint with the municipal housing authority.

In 2019, Mayor Bill de Blasio made his first and only serious blow to tackle basement apartments when he introduced a modernization pilot program in Brooklyn. The program is designed to provide low or zero interest rate loans to owners of basement apartments to install necessary upgrades, improve tenant security, and bring apartments into compliance with the code. city. However, the program’s budget has been cut by more than 90% due to budget cuts related to COVID-19, effectively neutralizing any potential of the program as a viable long-term solution to the crisis.

Today, the basement apartment debate resurfaced and was reinvigorated in the wake of Ida’s destruction and tragedies. De Blasio, for his part, made an immediate commitment to introduce a mass messaging alert system specifically for residents of basement apartments to warn of potential dangers of incoming storms. But Annetta Seecharran, executive director of Chhaya, a housing advocacy group in New York City, called the proposed system completely unrealistic given the clandestine nature of most units.

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, a self-proclaimed “basement baby”, says the city has little choice but legalize and ensure adequate security standards of basement apartments; a position also supported by Eric Adams, the expected successor of the mayor of Blasio.

But legalizing basement apartments or creating a new messaging system won’t solve the affordable housing crisis at the root of the problem. With only 400,000 affordable housing units available to nearly a million low-income New Yorkers, illegitimate basement apartments and their inherent risks will remain a staple of the city until the poorest citizens have adequate housing options .

Democratic candidate Eric Adams’ plan advice to this much-needed renewal of affordable housing through commitments to restructure obsolete New York City housing regulations, expand and strengthen the city’s rent subsidy program, and pay $ 8 billion into NYCHA, the city’s affordable housing authority. But its implementation remains to be seen.

In 2014, the mayor of Blasio presented a similar grandiose housing plan promising the development or protection of 300,000 affordable housing units across the city at a cost of $ 100 billion. A 2021 report, however, found that his administration achieved just over half of that pledge with 165,590 units. The report blamed the gap on a problematic implementation that failed to reduce ongoing housing speculation and segregation and ignored the nuances between low-income populations and the city’s homeless.

During his press conference on recovery from a storm, de Blasio lamented: “I could tell you that we have a miraculous plan to solve the problem of illegal basements overnight; we don’t. The creation of this miraculous plan, which will likely be left in Adams’ hands, should not focus on interim measures or political positions, but rather a serious attempt to expand affordable housing options. beyond basement renovations and text messages before the next Ida arrives in town.



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