In NYC’s Basement Apartments, Deadly Flood Risks Remain

One year after Hurricane Ida, tenants in below-ground units are still vulnerable to storm flooding — as are 25% of the city’s residential lots.

Bloomberg CityLab
September 1, 2022

One year after the torrential rains of Hurricane Ida drowned 11 people in their homes in New York City, lawmakers and housing advocates are urging the city to speed efforts to make basement apartments safer from severe flooding.

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There are an estimated 100,000 basement and cellar apartments in New York City, according to the nonprofit Pratt Center for Community Development. In a city where soaring housing prices and rents give residents few options, these low-lying units — some of which are illegal — provide desperately needed shelter for lower-income tenants, often immigrants.

Across New York State, Ida caused $7.5 billion in damages as rainwater inundated homes, collapsed roadways and flooded the subway system; the storm led to 16 deaths in New York and 26 in New Jersey, compared to four deaths in Louisiana, where the hurricane first made landfall. Most of Ida’s victims in New York City lived in Queens, including 84-year-old Yue Lian Chen; 2-year old Lobsang Lama and his parents, who immigrated from Nepal; 82-year–old Hongsheng Leng, his wife and their autistic daughter; and Darlene Lee, 48, who was pinned behind a door as water rose around her in the apartment of her building’s superintendent.

To boost the city’s flood resilience, in July New York City unveiled a broad plan to prepare for extreme rainfall, which included inspection of chronic flooding areas and clearing debris from catch basins in at-risk locations, among other measures. “Climate change is the city’s biggest environmental threat,” said Mayor Eric Adams. “The city is acting now to keep New Yorkers safe as we move into hurricane season.”

A tenant inspects a flooded basement apartment in Queens in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

But in the year since Ida lashed New York, there’s been little progress in bringing the city’s basement apartments up to code, advocates say, even as the risks of extreme rain continue to rise. A bill from state lawmakers Harvey Epstein and Brian Kavanagh that sought to legalize basement apartments was introduced in May 2022 but has since stalled, and other efforts to improve protections for those living in this network of unregulated spaces have not succeeded.

For those who were affected by Ida, the likelihood of future flooding is “nerve-racking,” said Annetta Seecharran, executive director of the Queens nonprofit Chhaya, which works largely with Indo-Caribbean immigrants. One woman told her that “every time it rains she has PTSD,” said Seecharran.

A “Gnarly Problem”

In a report released this week, New York City Comptroller Brad Lander proposed short-term measures to 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. The report also called for the establishment of a “Basement Board” to oversee rights and responsibilities.

Longer-term measures would create a pathway to more substantial physical improvements and legalization of many basement apartments, as well as relocation of tenants from units that are most dangerous.

“Living without tenant protections means basement residents are constantly at risk of eviction without due process,” said Lander in a statement. “We should act now to extend basement residents’ basic rights and responsibilities as well as require and aid owners to make lifesaving improvements.”

Lander’s proposed Basement Resident Protection Law is based on New York’s 1982 Loft Law, which addressed tenants in commercial buildings who lacked safety and legal protections. That regulation came after decades of conflict with city fire officials over establishing protections for artists who were moving into former industrial structures.

Making basement apartments safe “is a gnarly problem to solve,” Lander said in an interview. “Some are illegal units, but you can’t just tell people they have to leave.”

relates to In NYC’s Basement Apartments, Deadly Flood Risks Remain
Many occupied basement apartment units are concentrated in Queens and Brooklyn.Courtesy Office of NYC Comptroller

About 10% of all the city’s basement and cellars, whether occupied or not, currently face some flood risk, according to the comptroller’s report. But by 2050, as climate-change-fueled storms intensify, it estimated that a third of basements and cellars will be at a very high risk for coastal flooding and extreme rainfall.

Another report, from the nonprofit Citizens Housing & Planning Council, found that roughly 25% of New York City’s residential lots intersect with a stormwater flood zone, “putting thousands at risk for catastrophic flooding.”

CHPC’s action plan for basement flood safety released this week called on the city to amend “unnecessarily restrictive” ceiling height minimums, parking requirements and other guidelines that hamper improvements.

“Basement apartments have always been a vital component of the city’s housing stock, yet arbitrary regulations restrict the pathway to legalizing basement units, eliminating key housing options for low-income New Yorkers,” said CHPC’s report.

The plan also urged sending out multilingual emergency alerts using the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system, and requiring landlords to distribute flash-flood safety plans to tenants. In addition, the report recommended instituting a stormwater fee for property owners and reducing the impervious surfaces that currently cover more than 70% of the city. Such hard surfaces lead to more runoff that can easily overwhelm sewers.

Stalled Progress

The risk facing the city’s basement residents is a longstanding problem: Fourteen years ago, a coalition of local nonprofits — including Chhaya, CHPC and Pratt Center for Community Development — started a campaign called Basement Apartments Safe for Everyone (BASE) to address safety concerns including fire, poor ventilation and carbon-monoxide poisoning.

One of the BASE campaign’s milestones was 2019 legislation to launch a pilot program in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood to convert basement apartments into safe and legal units. But funding for the pilot was cut in June 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic. Just eight homeowners are participating in the program.

“People have been living in basement apartments for years. We need to bring them out of the dark.”

Several city lawmakers are now urging Adams to allocate $250,000 to complete the pilot program by 2023.

“If fully funded, the East New York Pilot Project would set a precedent for the safe conversion of hundreds of thousands of apartments citywide,” wrote New York City council members Sandy Nurse and Pierina Sanchez in a letter this July.

Lander has worked on basement-apartment safety for years in his former role as Pratt Center director — but even he was surprised by Hurricane Ida’s devastation of inland parts of New York City. “Flooding in non-coastal geography was not something that I had previously thought of,” he said.

Nurse agrees that the storm thrust the issue of basement apartment safety back into the spotlight and revealed their vulnerability not just to fire hazards, but also heavy rain and flooding.

“People have been living in basement apartments for years,” she said. “We need to bring them out of the dark. We need to allow them to live in safe units and allow for protections.”

The plan also urged sending out multilingual emergency alerts using the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system, and requiring landlords to distribute flash-flood safety plans to tenants. In addition, the report recommended instituting a stormwater fee for property owners and reducing the impervious surfaces that currently cover more than 70% of the city. Such hard surfaces lead to more runoff that can easily overwhelm sewers.

Stalled Progress

The risk facing the city’s basement residents is a longstanding problem: Fourteen years ago, a coalition of local nonprofits — including Chhaya, CHPC and Pratt Center for Community Development — started a campaign called Basement Apartments Safe for Everyone (BASE) to address safety concerns including fire, poor ventilation and carbon-monoxide poisoning.

One of the BASE campaign’s milestones was 2019 legislation to launch a pilot program in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood to convert basement apartments into safe and legal units. But funding for the pilot was cut in June 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic. Just eight homeowners are participating in the program.

“People have been living in basement apartments for years. We need to bring them out of the dark.”

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-09-01/in-new-york-city-s-basement-apartments-flood-dangers-remain-a-year-after-ida?srnd=citylab

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