Mayor de Blasio’s multifaceted approach to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next decade is ambitious and, many agree, noble.
But one of the ways he plans to attain that goal has Queens civic leaders up in arms.
In a Jan. 22 New York Times article, de Blasio is reported as favoring legalizing some illegal basement and cellar apartments. On the housing page of his campaign website, it is said that de Blasio “will end the practice of pretending these homes and their families don’t exist.
“As mayor, he will bring them into the regulated housing system, ensure they meet legal standards for safety, and work to bring them under rent-regulation,” the page says.
Queens Civic Congress President Richard Hellenbrecht believes such a plan is simply “inconceivable.”
“There’s a reason for zoning. Our neighborhoods are designed to be lived in by a certain occupancy,” Hellenbrecht said. “If [de Blasio] said, all of a sudden, you can develop basement apartments and it started happening in Bellerose, I’m gone. I’ll move out tomorrow if that happened.”
Hellenbrecht believes that legalizing a number of illegal basement apartments would add another level of stress on many already overcrowded school districts and the public transportation and sewer systems.
“It would just decimate neighborhoods. It would really destroy a lot of neighborhoods and bring down property values,” he said. “I really haven’t heard of anyone else really supporting this. No way in hell.”
Forest Hills Civic Association President Barbara Stuchinski also didn’t shy away from expressing her dislike of such a plan, calling it “absolute bull.”
“I am totally opposed. The answer to affordable housing is not sticking people in basements. I wouldn’t want to keep my dog in the basement,” Stuchinski said. “Who wants to raise a child in a basement? I would be out there picketing if I knew children were being raised in basements.
“The possibilities for extremely hazardous conditions are endless. Potential for loss of life is endless. A fire? Boom, you’re dead,” she continued. “Your boiler and hot water heaters are down there, and every time it rains, basements flood.”
Stuchinski also expressed worries that any influx of people living in such dwellings would strain infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and sewer pipes that are already stretched to the limit.
The Mayor’s Office did not respond to requests for comment on the issue.
Make The Road, a Bushwick-based advocacy group that promotes affordable housing, believes that angry civic leaders bring up good points that must be addressed in any formal plan to legalize basement apartments. However, the impact of such dwellings on the community will not be as traumatic as some think, the group says.
In fact, legalizing many basement apartments that are already occupied will help the city get a better understanding of an area’s population and subsequent needs, according to Make The Road managing attorney Marika Dias.
“It would allow the city to better track the needs of the community,” Dias said. “The concern of the people who are worried about drainage and infrastructure may actually see an improvement if resources are utilized correctly.”
Dias said that Make The Road would only support such a plan if a detailed program on bringing basement dwellings up to code was created, and the group is “hopeful that it will happen.”
Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D- East Elmhurst) stands with de Blasio in supporting the legalization of basement apartments, saying in a statement that it would be a “win for all New Yorkers.”
“Although there is much to consider in terms of safety for potential renters,” Ferreras said, “it’s clear that a comprehensive plan to help legalize these dwellings will undoubtedly benefit many of our residents who currently reside in illegal subdivided apartments and other substandard living conditions.”
While Hellenbrecht agrees that more affordable housing is desperately needed citywide, he suggests above-ground solutions should be taken into consideration before subterranean apartments are.
“There are buildings that have been vacated and taken over by the city,” he said. “Those buildings should be renovated and reused for affordable housing.”