the city politic

Why Are So Many of New York’s Basement Apartments Still Death Traps?

A year ago, floodwaters drowned 11 people in their homes. It will happen again.

Danny Hong indicates how high the water reached in his basement apartment in Flushing on September 2, 2021, after remnants of Hurricane Ida dumped historic and deadly torrential rain on New York City. Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP/Shutterstock
Danny Hong indicates how high the water reached in his basement apartment in Flushing on September 2, 2021, after remnants of Hurricane Ida dumped historic and deadly torrential rain on New York City. Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP/Shutterstock

The horrific deaths of 13 New Yorkers in the wake of Hurricane Ida last September was the worst kind of urban tragedy — the kind that we predict and anticipate but consciously fail to fix even though simple, affordable solutions are close at hand. As the 2022 hurricane season kicks into gear, we’re all set to repeat the disaster.

When last year’s storm unexpectedly dumped torrential rains at a rate of more than three inches per hour — well beyond the 1.75 inches per hour that the city’s sewer system was designed to handle — 11 people drowned in unlicensed basement and cellar apartments, which are partly or fully below ground level and often lack the windows and alternate exits required by the city’s building code.

“Tens of thousands of our neighbors have been living in basements and cellars for years, even for decades. And even before Ida woke us up to the flash-flooding risk, they were dying in fires,” City Comptroller Brad Lander told me recently, referring to the estimated 50,000 to 100,000 New Yorkers who live in unlicensed units. “Unfortunately, here we are a year later, and still not too much has been done.”

Accounts of the deaths read like the grim shadow side of New York’s celebrated immigrant-powered diversity. Forty-eight-year-old Darlene Hsu drowned in Forest Hills. In Jamaica, 43-year-old Phamatee Ramskriet and her 22-year-old son, Khriskah Ramskriet, died in a basement unit. In Cypress Hills, Roberto Bravo, 66, drowned in his home. And in Woodside, Mingma Sherpa, Lobsang Lama, and their 2-year-old son, Ang, all perished together.

And a year after the tragedy, more than 100 families displaced by the storm are still homeless, living in hotels. It is a great moral stain on our city that New York treats our low-income and immigrant neighbors this way, gratefully benefiting from their (underpaid) labor as cooks, janitors, bussers, laborers, manicurists, nannies, security guards, and taxi drivers while ignoring the hazardous conditions of the gray-market housing they live in.

Even more frustrating is the fact that New York’s not-so-small army of clever urban planners, passionate politicians, and idea-driven charities have spent years collectively fashioning one plausible, inexpensive solution after another to the problem of illegal apartments — but many of those ideas have died because of a lack of political will.

Lander, for instance, has proposed something called the Basement Resident Protection Law, which would mandate an inventory and assessment of the city’s basement and cellar units and give them a temporary legal status so landlords could bring them up to code swiftly. The idea is modeled on the Loft Law, which successfully brought artist spaces and attics up to code a generation ago.

“Let’s put some basic protections in place. Let’s make sure everyone’s got a smoke detector, that everyone’s got just a backflow preventer that prevents water from coming in the sewer main, that everyone has some basic protections so they can’t be evicted without due process. And then let’s move to this legalization step,” Lander says. “We’ll ultimately make these units safer, but we don’t have to wait until we can make every unit up to code to provide these basic safety protections.”

The Regional Plan Association proposed a similar path to the legalization of the units in a report in June. And both ideas are similar to a pilot program, mandated by the City Council during the de Blasio administration, that started the process of visiting basement units and fashioning solutions — like adding a new door or stairway or excavating a floor to give rooms the legally required seven-foot height — with loans up to $120,000 available to landlords to help defray the costs.

But even de Blasio’s tiny $1.2 million program got slashed from the city budget at the start of the pandemic. It’s unclear whether the Adams administration will resurrect the plan, which currently has a dead link on the city’s website.

“At the time that our program was cut, we had visited around a hundred basements. We were planning on doing many more,” one of the program’s managers, Ryan Chavez, told me last year. Michelle Neugebauer, the executive director of the Cypress Hills Local Development Corp., one of the groups leading the pilot program, told me she and other managers were heartbroken by the drownings last September. “We keep thinking, Wow, if we could have really had the full funding, maybe we could have gotten further. Maybe we could have prevented some loss of life if there was this investment in small homes.”

And yet another attempt at legalization earlier this year was wrapped in a statewide proposal that would have also legalized “mother-in-law units,” converted garages and guest houses in suburban communities. While Governor Kathy Hochul initially proposed a broad legalization effort for so-called accessory-dwelling units, the idea ran into heavy opposition from suburban lawmakers and ultimately got pulled from the state budget.

It’s time to stop running in circles on the issue. Mayor Eric Adams, along with Lander and Hochul, must press the City Council and State Legislature to take action and get basement and cellar units on a path to being safe and legal before the next big storm. It’s the least New York can do for the thousands of immigrants we rely on and claim to cherish.

Why Are Many New York Basement Apartments Still Death Traps?