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Hurricane Ida’s Silver Lining: A Chance at Vital NYC Housing Reform

Update (Sept. 1, 2022): One year after Hurricane Ida’s heavy rains caused 11 New Yorkers to drown, the city government has made some progress in addressing flood risks in basement apartments. The city has unveiled a broad plan to prepare for extreme rainfall, and a new proposal would recognize existing basement units, require owners to provide basic safety equipment such as smoke detectors and water backflow preventers, and provide financial resources for installation. However, as Bloomberg notes, there is still much to be done. 

Flooding in the Bronx the day after Ida passed through New York City. Credit: Jim Griffin

In early September, Hurricane Ida fatally drowned 11 New Yorkers in the supposed comfort of their own homes. Only one of these tragedies occurred in an area designated as a high flood risk.

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

Unlike Hurricane Sandy, which wrought its worst damage across the coastal regions of New York City in 2012, Ida’s greatest destruction centered largely in areas of inland Queens which had encountered little of the storm surge that proved so dangerous and deadly a decade prior.

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

Ida and its record 7-plus-inch deluge of rainfall across the NYC area brought to the forefront another piece of the city’s ever-growing climate response puzzle: the need to address its largely-taboo network of illegitimate basement apartments.

With New York recently reclaiming the dubious honor of having the country’s highest rental costs, lower-income renters have turned to converting the basements of one- and two-family houses in the city’s outer boroughs into makeshift living spaces. City officials estimate that over 50,000 of these unofficial dwellings exist across the city and are home to over 100,000 of its residents.

Basement apartments are a sticky challenge. They provide much-needed housing to many of the city’s most vulnerable populations, yet they present inherent dangers to these same residents. Many basement apartments only possess one point of entry and exit, and consequently, pose major fire and, as painfully highlighted by Ida, flash-flood risks. These apartments also often fail to meet regulation ventilation, heating, and cooling standards.

Up to this point, the city has largely brushed the issue under the rug, opting to loosely enforce regulations against basement apartments through a voluntary complaint system. This arrangement is often underutilized by apartment tenants, many of whom fear arrest, fines, or even deportation if they were to bring their complaints to the city housing authority.

In 2019, Mayor Bill de Blasio took his first and only serious stab at addressing basement apartments when he introduced a pilot retrofitting program in Brooklyn. The program is designed to provide low- or zero-interest loans to basement apartment landlords to install necessary upgrades, improve tenant safety, and bring the apartments up to city code. However, the program’s budget has been reduced by over 90 percent because of COVID-19-related budget cuts, effectively neutralizing any potential for the program as a viable long-term solution to the crisis.

Today, the basement apartment debate has re-emerged and been reinvigorated in the wake of Ida’s destruction and tragedies. For his part, de Blasio vowed in the immediate term to introduce a mass messaging alert system specifically for the residents of basement apartments to warn of potential dangers from incoming storms. But Annetta Seecharran, executive director of Chhaya, an NYC housing advocacy group, has called the proposed system completely unrealistic given the clandestine nature of most units.

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, a self-proclaimed “basement baby,” argues the city has little choice but to legalize and ensure adequate safety standards of basement apartments; a position also endorsed by Eric Adams, Mayor de Blasio’s anticipated successor.

But legalizing basement apartments or creating a new messaging system won’t solve the affordable housing crisis at the root of the issue. With only 400,000 affordable housing units available for the nearly one million low-income New Yorkers, illegitimate basement apartments and their inherent risks will remain a fixture in the city so long as poorer citizens are left without adequate housing options.

Democratic candidate Eric Adams’s plan hints at this much-needed affordable housing revival through commitments to restructure outdated NYC housing regulations, expand and strengthen the city’s rent subsidy program, and to pour $8 billion dollars into NYCHA, the city’s affordable housing authority. But its implementation remains to be seen.

In 2014, Mayor de Blasio introduced 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 his administration achieved just over half of this promise with 165,590 units. The report blamed this discrepancy on problematic implementation that failed to curtail ongoing housing speculation and segregation and ignored the nuances between the city’s low income and homeless populations.

In his storm recovery press conference, de Blasio lamented, “I could tell you that we’ve got some miraculous plan to solve the illegal basement problem overnight; we don’t.” The creation of this miraculous plan, which will likely be left in Adams’s hands, should focus not on stopgap measures or political posturing, but instead on a serious attempt to expand affordable housing options beyond basement retrofits and text messages before the next Ida hits town.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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