Renters in New York's often illegal basement apartments bore the brunt of the Ida floods (2023)

New Yorkers who suffered flooding in their basement apartments -- often unauthorized renovations that didn't meet city safety standards -- now face new hardships and fears, including dangerous mold, future flooding and sudden home loss.

Renters in New York's often illegal basement apartments bore the brunt of the Ida floods (1)

The dining table was floating next to the stairs when Vicente Guerrero got home on Wednesday night. His children's birth certificates, the rent money he intended to give his landlord the next day, several hundred dollars in life savings, tax forms, files, clothes and groceries - all submerged in the dark water in his three-bedroom basement.

Guerrero, 39, shared a dishwashing unit with two housemates who walked away after first seeing the flooding. He locked the door of his apartment and called a friend who let him sleep over. There was nothing he could do or save during the storm.

The next day, he left some bags at his ex-wife's house. He's homeless now.

"I risked my life there and worked without knowing what was happening back home," said Guerrero, a grocer and immigrant from Mexico, noting how the water level in his apartment had risen.

"That red shirt you're wearing me belongs to my son. Jeans, shoes too. I don't have anything," he said while packing a small suitcase for a temporary stay at the local church.

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A historic storm swept through basement apartments in New York City on Wednesday, killing 13 people, including a two-year-old boy and his parents, while countless underground renters like Guerrero were left homeless. New Yorkers endure flooding in their basement homes...often unauthorized conversionsThose who fail to meet the city's safety standards now face new difficulties and fears, such as dangerous mold, future flooding and the sudden loss of homes.

All six properties where deaths occurred Wednesday were basements or basement units, and five were illegal conversions, city officials said. Under current city regulations, tenants of illegally converted basement apartments have little legal option to keep their homes.

"Resources are scarce when you live in the shadow of the law," said attorney Sateesh Nori, head of Legal Aid's Queens Housing Unit.

Nori and other advocates say the deadly storm should prompt the city of New York to reconsider its approach to basement housing and initiate action to legalize illegal housing or find safer housing for renters.

Renters in New York's often illegal basement apartments bore the brunt of the Ida floods (2)

There are likely tens of thousands of such apartments across the five boroughs, attracting low-income renters, particularly immigrants, who have few affordable options in the country's most expensive housing market. Units can be very unsafe, often with no windows or other exits in the event of a fire or other hazard. It wasnumerous deadly fireover the yearsin such housing, but the city has not addressed the reality of their widespread use as affordable housing, said Annetta Seecharran, executive director of Chhaya Community Development Corporation.

"We have a real problem here and we need leadership to move forward," Seecharran said.

Chhaya founded the Basement Apartments Safe for Everyone (BASE) campaign in 2008 to advocate for the city to increase the number of legally recognized, safe basement apartments by helping property owners improve conditions.

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In the short term, the city should find suitable housing for tenants displaced by the flood, Seecharran said.

"First we need to find temporary housing for all evicted tenants," Seecharran continued. "Secondly, we need practical help for landlords because mold is becoming an acute problem and is an extremely expensive problem for homeowners."

However, many landlords are unlikely to ask for help with cleaning when doing so can be fined. Tenants also do not want to draw attention to their plight, because otherwise they could become homeless.

Most basement housing in New York City is illegal, and officials from the Department of Buildings, Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), and other city agencies will vacate homes and fine owners if they discover an unregulated unit.

A pilot program to encode basement units in East New York and Cypress Hillsfell victim to budget cutslast year, despite appeals from advocates who said the initiative has helped New Yorkers hardest hit by the COVID crisis. "Now it's more important than ever to help modernize and modernize basic basement dwellings, where living conditions can increase the risk of disease transmission," dozens of nonprofits wrote in a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio last year.

But the conversions proved more complicated and expensive than expected, officials said last year. At that time the city hadOnly nine homeowners were approvedfor participating in the pilot program, which received 8,000 applications.

"It's an incredibly difficult situation," de Blasio said at a press conference on Friday. "Trying to perfectly finish an illegal basement is physically very difficult, very expensive, and requires a lot of cooperation with the homeowner."

One of the men who died Wednesday, retired construction worker Roberto Bravo, lived with two roommates in a basement in Cypress Hills. He was caught in a sudden rush of water and couldn't escape.

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Seecharran said she has urged De Blasio to publicly order authorities not to penalize landlords so they can seek help cleaning up the city after flooding without ill effects. After that, the city can work with landlords to make basements safe and livable, she said.

"We're trying to get the city to issue a statement that says, 'If you need help, get help and we won't fine you for an illegal basement,'" she said.

After the floods, a city hall official said the city would not fine landlords, but would instead issue "deficiency notices" before security screening homes.

The city still reserves the right to evict tenants and close apartments, the official said.

Major de Blasiosaid FridayThe city will develop a new rain protection plan that specifically addresses the risks associated with basement apartments, including how many are currently in use and where they are located.

The American Red Cross will help some people displaced by the storm by housing them in a hotel for up to five days. Red Cross spokesman Michael de Vulpillieres said the organization had provided shelter to around 20 families so far.

"Our teams are on the ground assessing the damage to identify more families who need help," de Vulpillieres said. The Red Cross is also helping New Yorkers affected by the flooding get prescriptions for new drugs, get counseling, and connect with other long-term support groups.

City authorities will also contact social services, but if an individual or family cannot find housing, they may need to use the protection scheme, the official acknowledged.

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After the floods, some tenants and property owners banded together to clean up and save the homes, said Jagpreet Singh, a Queens-based community organizer who worked on the BASE campaign.

Singh said he was visiting family and friends who were dealing with the aftermath of the flooding at three homes. In all cases, the landlords responded. But that's not always the case, especially when the property owner lives elsewhere or the building is owned by a larger company, he said.

Renters in illegal basement dwellings cannot obtain renters insurance and may not have legal title to the dwelling, leaving them at the mercy of the landlord.

"It really depends on what kind of relationship they have with their landlords," Singh said. "If they're in an unauthorized unit, they can't call 311 and report the damage."

"Until there is legalization, not much can be done," he added.

Singh said some nonprofits and legal services providers help property owners cover losses or ensure units are safe and livable after a flood. He advised residents to contact Chhaya. Make the Road New York also offers support and assistance.

Without action, other residents could suffer the same tragic fate as the 11 New Yorkers who died in their homes trying to escape the flooding on Wednesday. The climate crisis will only lead to stronger storms and more frequent floods, say experts.

"We all know that the people living in these homes are at risk of exploitation, displacement and now natural disasters," Nori said.

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Is it illegal to live in a basement in NY? ›

Basements and cellars in residential properties of all sizes can NEVER be lawfully rented or occupied unless the conditions meet the minimum requirements for light, air, sanitation and egress, and have received approval by the Department of Buildings (DOB).

How many people died in the basement of NYC from Hurricane Ida? ›

NYC basement apartments are still unregulated, despite Hurricane Ida deaths last fall Almost a year after Hurricane Ida killed 11 residents of mostly-unregulated basement apartments in Queens, advocates say the city and state haven't done enough to make that type of housing safer.

Were most of the apartments where New Yorkers drowned were illegal residences? ›

Most of the apartments where New Yorkers drowned were illegal residences. Four of the five basement apartments where people were killed in Queens were illegal conversions, as was one in Brooklyn, the Department of Buildings said. As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month.

What makes an apartment illegal in NY? ›

Examples of an illegal conversion include: Creating a rooming house (single room occupancy) or dividing an apartment into single room occupancies. Adding an apartment in the basement, attic or garage without obtaining approval or permits from DOB.

Is it unsafe to live in a basement? ›

Hazards commonly found in basements include toxic chemicals, pests, mold, indoor air quality issues (such as dangerous gases) and fire hazards that can affect all rooms of the home. Visit the kitchen to learn more about chemicals and pests; visit the bathroom to learn more about mold.

Is it illegal to have a bathroom in basement NYC? ›

Conclusion. Indeed, having a bathroom in a basement in NYC is legal. Moreover, in most situations, illegal bathroom fixtures are related to unlawful cellar conversions.

What was the biggest natural disaster in New York City? ›

September 11 Attacks

The biggest disaster in the history of New York City shook the entire world and the reverberations are still felt to this day.

Did Hurricane Ida affect New York? ›

One year ago, the remnants of Hurricane Ida deposited a record-breaking amount of rain on New York City and the surrounding region.

What was the worst natural disaster in NYC? ›

List of disasters in New York City by death toll
YearEventDeath toll
1891Park Place disaster61
2012Hurricane Sandy53
1926Linseed King51–58
1947United Airlines Flight 52143
111 more rows

What was an unsafe apartment immigrants lived in? ›

The immigrant poor lived in overcrowded, unsanitary, and unsafe housing. Many lived in tenements, dumbbell-shaped brick apartment buildings, four to six stories in height.

What is the black section of New York City? ›

Many of the city's black residents live in Brooklyn, Queens, Harlem, and The Bronx. Several of the city's neighborhoods are historical birthplaces of urban black culture in America, among them, the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford–Stuyvesant and Manhattan's Harlem and various sections of Eastern Queens and The Bronx.

How many illegal basement apartments are in NYC? ›

Because they are unregulated, basement and cellar apartments are difficult to track and count. However, a 2021 BASE analysis estimated there are more than 30,000 such units across eight community districts in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, all of which are majority nonwhite and rent-burdened.

Can I sue my landlord for renting an illegal apartment NY? ›

The landlord will be required to evict the tenant from the illegal unit. If this is the case, the tenant will have the right to sue the landlord for violating the terms of the rental agreement.

What a landlord Cannot do in New York? ›

Discrimination is a big deal in NYC law, and landlords cannot turn people away based on race, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender, or creed. You must talk to a lawyer if you believe you are a victim of discrimination. Without a written court order, they cannot force you to leave your home.

How much does it cost to legalize a basement in NYC? ›

Mayor Eric Adams supported the legalization of basement apartments to help make them safer. The estimated cost to bring each unit up to code ranges from $275,000 to $375,000 each.

What makes a basement unlivable? ›

Even a finished basement can have mold and moisture issues, common problems that plague basements. Basements are below-ground level, making them prone to leaks and high humidity.

Can mold in your basement make you sick? ›

Exposure to damp and moldy environments may cause a variety of health effects, or none at all. Some people are sensitive to molds. For these people, exposure to molds can lead to symptoms such as stuffy nose, wheezing, and red or itchy eyes, or skin.

What are the problems with living in a basement apartment? ›

Lack of natural light and proper ventilation

Due to its position below the ground level, the most common problem you face in a basement apartment is the limited natural light and proper ventilation. Due to minimal sunlight, you have to rely more on artificial lighting.

How do I report an illegal basement apartment in NYC? ›

Illegal Conversion Residential Space

Reports of illegal activities must be reported to the New York Police Department (NYPD). Call 911 to report illegal or dangerous activity, including drug use or sale, gambling, prostitution, or immediate danger in progress.

Can you have a shower in the basement? ›

Installing a basement shower often comes with the same strings attached as the installation of any basement plumbing, meaning that it often requires the uprooting of concrete. However, if a home was built with the main drain above the basement level, then the installation of a shower will require different steps.

Can I put a full bathroom in my basement? ›

Building Permit Requirements

When it comes to adding a basement bathroom, it's likely that you will need to have new water lines, drainage lines, and electrical connections installed. This means that you will need a building permit to ensure that the work is being completed according to code.

What is the number 1 deadliest natural disaster? ›

The Great Galveston Storm occurred on September 8, 1900, when a hurricane with an estimated strength of Category 4 hit Galveston, Texas. This hurricane remains the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, as well as the worst hurricane in U.S. history.

What is the deadliest natural disaster in us? ›

The Great Galveston Hurricane. The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 was the single deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, it resulted in a massive 6,000 – 12,000 casualties. It damaged every single building in the city.

What was America's worst disaster? ›

Over 100,000 deaths
700,0001981 – presentHIV/AIDS in the United States
675,0001918 – 19201918 influenza pandemic
116,0001957 – 19581957–1958 influenza pandemic
100,00019681968 influenza pandemic

Can you sleep in your own basement? ›

Yes, as long as they comply with the proper building codes. Usually, a basement bedroom will need to have a door and an emergency exit, which may be a door to the outside or a properly-sized window.

What qualifies as a basement bedroom in New York? ›

If the basement contains more than one sleeping room, egress is required for each sleeping room. An unobstructed opening with at least 5.7 square feet is necessary. The width of the clear opening has to be at least 20-inches, while the height must be 24-inches.

Can I have my room in the basement? ›

In short, yes. You can use your basement as a bedroom, but you have to ensure that it complies with the proper building codes. Basement living spaces require an emergency exit and rescue openings, also known as an egress code.


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