Ida’s flooding renews basement unit debate 1

Flooding in a basement apartment in Jamaica trapped a family inside and killed them.

Hurricane Ida’s unexpected flash floods that bombarded Queens houses and apartment buildings and killed more than a dozen people have amplified a debate over basement apartment regulation in the city.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, housing advocates and a group of councilmembers pointed to a stalled program aimed at converting basement apartments that are prohibited by New York City zoning and building codes as a potential tool for combating basement apartment fatalities.

Out of those who died from flooding, reportedly 11 were in basement apartments. Proponents of a legalization program say that the process of getting illegal apartments up to code could make them safer for people who are going to seek them out, legal or not. Opponents say that the apartments aren’t safe and the city should not sanction them with a program.

The mayor, for his part, has not been optimistic about expanding a basement apartment legalization program in the wake of Ida. In 2019, the city started a pilot program to legalize basement apartments in East New York and bring them up to code, which would mean that units need a ceiling at least 7 feet high, a window in each room and an exit to the outside to be considered legal, but much of its funding was reallocated during the pandemic, and the program has been put on hold.

“I could tell you that we’ve got some miraculous plan to solve the illegal basement problem overnight. We don’t. I want to be blunt about that. It is a massive structural problem in the city. It has been for decades. We don’t have an immediate solution to this one,” said Mayor de Blasio in a press event Tuesday.

Advocates have argued that even though the storm showed that basement apartments are susceptible to flooding, the best approach for the city to protect the estimated 100,000 people who live in them is to make sure that they at least meet the minimum safety requirements.

“Basements have been around a long time. People are going to continue to live in them. I think it’s the city’s responsibility to make sure that they’re safe and they’re regulated,” said Annetta Seecharran, executive director at housing advocacy group Chhaya Community Development Corp.

Seecharran added that she believed the mayor needs to be the one to create a citywide program. Chhaya CDC, which launched the Basement Apartments Safe for Everyone campaign, spurred the mayor’s basement pilot program in its years of advocacy for basement legalization.

As far as what measures outside those already in place in the 2019 legislation could protect residents from extreme flooding events like Ida, there are remaining questions. Rebekah Morris, a small homes policy researcher at the Pratt Center who has worked extensively on the BASE campaign, said that the flooding has forced those involved in the campaign to do more research on how to stop flooding in basement units.

“It just clarified that there’s another area of safety that needs to be thought of and included that many technical experts were not including over the years. It was always so focused on fire,” Morris said.

She added that the storm did not change whether legalization was a good idea, but she didn’t hesitate to add what a huge investment and political push it would take for the city to tackle the issue.

“Do I believe that de Blasio is going to do anything? I don’t,” said Morris, adding that it is looking like it will come down to the City Council to pressure if it wants to push through a bigger legalization program.

Councilwoman Adrienne Adams (D-Jamaica), a Council ally of the BASE campaign and potential candidate for City Council speaker, said that the harm and deaths caused by the storms from Hurricane Ida only strengthened her resolve to expand the program citywide.

Councilman Bob Holden (D-Middle Village), on the other hand, an opponent of the basement pilot program who has proposed legislation that would crack down on illegal apartment conversions across the city, said, “Ida has taught that these apartments aren’t safe. While there is a shortage of affordable housing in the city that needs to be addressed, basement apartments are not the answer.”

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