Two years ago, as Mayor Bill de Blasio pushed for ambitious plans to create more affordable housing in New York City, his administration launched an initiative to tackle one of the city 's thorniest housing problems: turning illegal basement apartments into safe and livable spaces.
For many, the move was seen as long overdue and in some cases a matter of life and death. There are tens of thousands of such units, the only places many New Yorkers and low-income immigrants can afford to live, even though cramped and unregulated conditions put them at risk of flooding, flooding, water damage. 'fires and many other threats.
But after the city promised a program to turn the dark world of basement apartments, its initiativelargely failed. M. de Blasio slashed the budget during the pandemic and only eight households are participating.
The fate of the basement program is now being discussed. Close scrutiny after the remnants of Hurricane Ida flooded the city this month, killing 11 people in basement homes. Almost everyone who died in the city, including a toddler and his parents, lost their lives in illegal homes in basements and cellars, often as the overwhelming floodwaters left them with no way to escape. Several were immigrants, according to neighbors.
The city said it cut the program last spring as one of several measures to Economy taken during the pandemic to cope with a staggering budget crisis. Officials have not said whether they intend to restore funding or expand the programme, as M. de Blasio said he wanted to do.
After Ida, the Mayor recognized the problem of basement apartments and said the city plans to better alert or evacuate residents who lived there during dangerous storms. But he also said the city didn't have a ready-made answer to the larger question of how to make underground dwellings illicit, which is playing an important role in tackling the city 's affordable housing shortage. safe places to live.
"I could tell you that we have a miraculous plan to solve the illegal basement problem overnight ", did he declare. “We don't.
The cost, he said, could be in the billions of dollars. Based on the results of the program, each conversion could cost at least $ 250,000 to 310 0$ 00, based on current regulations.
Some housing experts have questioned the administration 's commitment to the issue. The pilot program was a relatively small investment, and the city received billions of dollars in additional federal pandemic assistance.
"The mayor had said helping to improve the safety and livability of basement apartments was a top priority for him, ”said Jessica Katz, executive director of Citizens Housing and Planning Council, a non-profit housing group which evaluates the city basement apartment program. "The basement pilot project was a small but serious step in the right direction - which was quickly paid off.
Ms. Katz, who worked for several years in the city's housing department until 2017, hassaid "there has been very little progress by this administration " in making basements "better live ".
The city stumbles over Tackling illegal basement and cellar homes - many of both lacking basic requirements like more than one way out - is just one part of the crisis. affordability of housing in New York. (Basements and cellars are at least partially underground, but cellars, in which at least half of the space is below sidewalk level, are still illegal to rent, while some basements may be legal.)
The coronavirus pandemic, which has left hundreds of thousands unemployed, has made matters worse, while climate change has increased the threat of more frequent and more severe storms.
At its core, the challenge is a question of supply and demand. The nameThe number of low-income New Yorkers far exceeds the number of affordable housing, leading many to seek refuge in unsafe but relatively cheap basement homes.
The prevalence of illegal units extends beyond New York. In Utah this year, the state legislature passed a bill making it easier to rent out their basements. In Boston, a pilot program to help homeowners rent out their basements was extended citywide .
But in Few places is the problem as pressing as in New York, where the number of illicit units exceeds probBy far that of any other American city. There is no official tally, but Mr de Blasio estimated that there were at least 50,000 illegal dwellings or more than 100,000 people.
Andrew Rudansky, spokesperson for the city's buildings department, said five of the six houses where people died in the flooding were illegal conversions from cellars or basements to apartments, while 'a sixth house was a legal basement unit.
In at least four of the five illegal units there was only one only way in and out, according to the Buildings Department, which is investigating the six deaths with the Police Department.
The pilot program in East New York, Brooklyn, in 2019 was the first significant attempt to try to convert such units into legal housing, officials say.s of the city.
When Blasio 's administration rezoned East New York in 2016, many residents feared that new developments would cause significant displacement t . Renting basements could provide newcomers with affordable housing while providing additional income for existing residents trying to pay off their mortgages. Image "There are people who need a safe place to stay, ”said Matthews, who for years had wanted to rent out her basement to help pay off her mortgage. Credit ... Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for Hfrance.fr
The pilot started in March 2019, hasith about $ 12 million from the city and a goal of helping 40 households in eastern New York City convert their basements to apartments and see if the initiative could be applied citywide.
The city provided approximately $ 120,000 per house in loans that could eventually be canceled to help renovate basements and make them legal homes by adding more inlets and outlets or sprinkler systems among others, said Michelle Neugebauer, executive director of Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, a local group that runs the pilot.
The participants had to ha We have low or moderate income and live in the house where the basement was to be converted into an apartment.
There were high expectations, with Mr Blasio saying in February 2020 that the pilot could be rolled out to the whole city. The program,Ms. Neugebauer said, was ready to move forward on nine properties and appraise dozens more.
Then the pandemic struck. The city slashed the program's budget by $ 7.5 million, Ms. Neugebauer said, and the program was limited to working only on the original nine houses.
" This is truly devastating, "Ms. Neugebauer said. "We're just kind of hooked by the skin of our teeth.
The mayor's office did not respond to questions about the 'use of federal pandemic funds or other financial sources to help save the program.
One of the nine owners dropped out for health reasons, but the con the release process is underway in eight other homes. Once permits and loans from the city are obtained, construction could begin atearly next year and last for about seven months, according to the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation
Despite the setbacks, the pilot has been an unexpected windfall for a owner, Crystal Matthews.
Ms. Matthews, 46, a nurse, bought her home in East New York, a modest three-story apartment building near her sister, over three years ago because she wanted to have a home available for her aging parents who live a few miles away.
She quickly considered what it would take to legally rent her basement, which has both an entrance and an exit on the backyard, to help pay her monthly mortgage of $ 3,500 and other fees. She knew that many of her neighbors were renting illegally, but didn't want to risk being fined by the city.
But even thesimple task of installing a sprinkler system as required by the housing code could cost up to $ 40,000, so she gave up on the idea. Her basement remained a vacant space - and, in her mind, lost - a space. When she heard about the pilot, she jumped at the chance.
"Gentrification being what it is, there is people who need a safe place to stay, "she says.
Despite the program's setbacks, Ms. Neugebauer said there are had had valuable lessons.
The high costs of most basement conversions highlighted the kind of funding that would be needed across the city .
Ms. Katz said the pilot could also point to regulations that could be changed to make conversions easier. Under current rules, for example, the aAdding units to the basement requires the addition of new parking space, which is a big challenge in many dense neighborhoods.
" We have this problem, where you can't make an apartment a little bit safer, you have to make it perfect, and so we don't do anything at all, "Ms. Katz said. "It's a bit like putting our heads in the sand.