Comptroller's Plan Would Temporarily Legalize Basement Apartments
Shortly before the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Ida, which resulted in 11 people drowned in basement apartments during the storm, New York City Comptroller Brad Lander released a report called “Bringing Basement Apartments into the Light.” The report proposes a path to legalize basement apartments.
The plan is modeled on New York’s Loft Law, which was designed to address a similar crisis: an informal system that left loft tenants in previously manufacturing buildings without physical safety or legal protections. The Loft Law provided immediate protections and rights to tenants and established a comprehensive process for the long-term conversion of commercial and manufacturing buildings to legal, safe residences.
Extent of Risk
The Pratt Center estimates that there are 300,000 to 500,000 families living in basements and cellars across the five boroughs. According to the report, 43,000 basement apartments, or 10 percent of all physical basements and cellars, are currently facing some type of flooding risk. By the 2050s as storms intensify, a third of basements and cellars will be at a very high risk for coastal flooding and extreme rainfall. Due to data limitations, the analysis doesn’t project how many of those units are currently occupied, but demonstrates the increasing risk posed to basement dwellers in the face of storms like Ida.
What Proposal Would Do
The “Basement Resident Protection Law” would recognize existing basement units, require owners to provide basic safety interventions like smoke detectors and backflow preventers and offer resources to install them, grant basic tenant protections, and establish a Basement Board to oversee these rights and responsibilities. Lander’s measure would legalize basement and cellar apartments for five years, during which time property owners would have to register the units with the board. This interim approach would work in tandem with existing legislative efforts to establish a pathway to improvements and legalization of many of the units, and with relocation of tenants from those that are most dangerous.
The law would:
- Establish basic rights and responsibilities for basement dwellers and owners, including the requirement to provide basic services and the legal right to collect rent.
- Mandate and offer funding to owners for the installation of basic safety measures including carbon monoxide and smoke detectors, and backflow preventers to mitigate fire and flooding risks.
- Protect tenants in interim units from harassment, eviction, and the denial of essential services, and create new pathways for proactive enforcement and better data systems for the implementation of early flood warning systems.
- Provide a registration framework that supports and is coordinated with ongoing safety inspections and longer-term legalization efforts.
- Require the city and state to provide affordable housing to New Yorkers living in units deemed to be so unfit for living that they must be vacated.
- Fund language-accessible outreach to both owners and occupants of basement units through community-based organizations.