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Several Queens Officials Say Calls to Remove Basement Apartments Are Unrealistic

Congress Member Grace Meng lays flowers outside the door of an Elmhurst home where 86-year-old Yue Lian Chen drowned in her basement apartment (Congress Member Grace Meng)

Sept. 9, 2021 By Allie Griffin

A group of Queens officials who have lived in basement apartments themselves said Wednesday that calls to remove such units are not realistic.

Critics who want the city to crack down on illegal basement apartments and end their use say the units are unsafe and lead to overcrowding. They point to the 11 New Yorkers who died last week when flooding from Hurricane Ida turned their subterranean homes into death traps.

However, advocates of basement units and elected officials such as Queens Borough President Donovan Richards say the city should find a way to legalize the units, while increasing safety standards. They note the city has little choice but to adopt this approach.

Richards, who held a media roundtable with Congress Members Grace Meng and Hakeem Jeffries Wednesday, said people will continue to live in basement-level apartments as long as there’s a housing affordability crisis in the city.

“One of the reasons people in Queens County live in basements is because we’re in an affordability crisis and basements play a key role in providing affordable housing,” Richards said. “… We’re going to need some real solutions moving forward on how we bring these illegal basements into compliance with the city.”

The three elected officials said the city needs to have a serious conversation and come up with a plan to address the multitude of basement apartments across the city.

There are 312,658 such units that could potentially be converted to safe, legal and affordable homes, according to NYC BASE Campaign, a group formed to fight for the legalization of basement apartments in New York City.

Richards said he has lived in basement apartments himself.

“I’m a basement baby I like to say,” he said. “A basement apartment helped get me through college as well to an extent.”

Meng said she also spent the early years of her life in a basement apartment.

“I too am a basement baby,” she said. “I spent the first six years of my life in a basement in Queens and Donovan’s right, people are going to live in basements whether we like it or not — whether we legalize them or not, they are going to live in basements.”

Likewise, Jeffries said he lived basement apartments in college, graduate school and even during his first four years as a Congress member in Washington D.C.

“Basement apartments are a reality because we have a housing crisis that exists here in New York City and the United States of America,” Jeffries said.

Meng said that she met a seven-month-old “garage baby” Tuesday while out surveying storm damage and assisting constituents in her district. The garage was converted into a small two-bedroom apartment, which was flooded in the storm.

She said the family didn’t know it was illegal for them to be housed in a garage. In fact, most tenants of basement apartments who she spoke to didn’t know their homes were illegal, Meng said.

Richards said he believes there is momentum now to start the conversation on legalizing basement apartments. Meng and Jeffries echoed his sentiments.

Meng added that there’s no time to spare as the issue has become one of life or death, as illustrated by Ida.

“I know that this has been a somewhat controversial topic at least in the borough of Queens… but as we have seen this has now become even more of a humanitarian issue,” Meng said. “This is an issue of life or death.”

The city launched a pilot program in East New York in 2019 to help homeowners convert their basements into safe, legal apartments by providing them with low or no-interest loans to bring the units up to code.

However, the pilot didn’t prove successful despite high interest. The goal was to legalize 40 basement apartments, but only eight homeowners out of more than 300 applicants were approved, according to THE CITY.

Furthermore, the pilot was almost completely defunded in the last budget, the outlet reported. Richards believes the city should have put in more funds and effort to ensure its success.

“The mayor needs to go back and look at what happened in East New York [and] cut that red tape because basement apartments are here to stay,” he said.

Richards added that a first step to explore ways to legalize basement apartments would be to put the money back into the pilot.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday that it would take billions of dollars to legalize basement apartments and bring them up to code — which requires units to have seven-foot ceilings, windows in every room and half of the unit to be above ground.

For the meantime, the city is focused on getting people back into their homes — whether a basement unit or not.

“We got to get people whole right now, get them to where they were before the storm, and then work to address the bigger problem,” de Blasio said during a press briefing Wednesday.

The city’s housing department will not be issuing any fines for such units for the rest of the year, he added.

“Right now we don’t want to put homeowners in a double jeopardy,” de Blasio said. “They’ve just been through a horrible storm. We don’t want to hit them with additional fines. We don’t want to have a situation where someone who was living in a basement apartment has nowhere to live.”

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