Tens of thousands of New Yorkers are estimated to be living illegally in basement apartments. And now, just over a month after at least 11 people across New York City were found dead from flooding in basement homes, the path to making them safer and legal is at the center of new legislation that's being discussed by the state Assembly.
At a public hearing Wednesday in lower Manhattan, state Assembly members representing several committees listened to comments from the public, advocates and experts.
“Legalization is the only path to effectively serve individuals who are living in those units to ensure that those units have the path and the resources to be brought up to code,” said Casey Berkovitz, a coalition coordinator with ADU NY, as he testified before Assembly members.
Assembly Member Harvey Epstein has co-sponsored a bill to legalize basement apartments, but says the path to legalization is finding a standard that makes units safe.
“If we know someone is in an illegal unit, can we legalize it?” Epstein asked. “Can we have a second means of egress, whether it’s a door into the house or a door into a rear yard, is that possible? Is it possible to separate the boiler from the rest of the unit? Is it important to put flood protections in place?”
Epstein says he’s working with the Governor’s Office and housing agencies to find funding that would help homeowners meet minimum safety standards if the units become legal.
He is also hoping that the state Assembly and state Senate move forward and vote on the bill next year.
Walter De La Puente’s basement was destroyed last month by record rainfall and several feet of flooding. However, he says he reminds himself every day to put the hardships inflicted by the remnants of Hurricane Ida in perspective.
“Being alive is the most important thing,” said De La Puente. “You see the family on the corner. That was sad.”
De La Puente lives just three houses away from where Ida killed a mother, father, and their 19-month-old son, after they drowned in a basement apartment that the city’s Department of Buildings said had been illegally converted.
De La Puente himself has never rented out his basement unit, but he has a strong feeling about newly proposed legislation to legalize basement apartments and other living spaces known as Accessory Dwelling Units.
“It has to be safe, that’s for sure.” De La Puente says.