Safety of basement apartments in New York under scrutiny after Ida

More than a dozen people were killed in storm-related incidents in New York City after the remnants of Hurricane Ida slammed the region. Many of the victims were killed in basement apartments. 

Now, there’s renewed scrutiny over their safety.

“We need to make sure that the affordable housing is resilient and safe and protected, and often times, it’s not,” Brendan Cheney, director of policy at the New York Housing Conference, told CBS New York

Cheney said the housing crisis played a role in what happened.

“Fifty-one percent of very low-income renters are paying more than half of their income on rent, which is a really big housing crisis, and people are forced to sometimes live in unsafe conditions,” he said. 

“People look for places to live that they can afford, and unfortunately, we’re not really creating a lot of them here in New York,” said Moses Gates, vice president for housing and neighborhood at the Regional Plan Association.

Gates said they’ve tried for years to bring these illegal units up to code to help provide more affordable options.

“Nobody wants people to live in unsafe conditions. I think we all know we have a housing crisis, but it’s an issue of prioritization,” Gates said.

Remnants Of Hurricane Ida Move Through Northeast Causing Widespread Flooding
Eddie, an immigrant from Mexico, walks through his flooded basement-level apartment in a Queens neighborhood that saw massive flooding and numerous deaths due to the remnants of Hurricane Ida on September 03, 2021 in New York City. Getty Images

New York City’s mayor estimates there are 50,000 illegal basement units with more than 100,000 residents, although he acknowledges that number could be much higher.

New York Attorney General Letitia James is calling on the city to provide special emergency housing vouchers to help those who live in illegal basement apartments, saying, “In the face of that risk, it is our duty to move these New Yorkers out of harm’s way by offering them safer, regulated housing.”  

Marlon Ruiloba is trying to salvage as much as he can after the storm flooded his family’s basement-level apartment in Queens, where several storm-related deaths happened in basement units. 

“All is destroyed. Everything water damaged, walls, fridge,” he told CBS New York. 

They were living there because the rent was lower than an above-ground place, but now he, his wife and their 5-year-old son are homeless.

The basement apartment next door is in even worse condition.

“It was very sad in the beginning, but I can’t do nothing about it,” Sandra Rosero said.

Rosero’s father, David Rosero, is the landlord and was letting her stay in the basement because he says he cannot afford to convert it to a legal apartment for rent.

Annetta Seecharran, executive director of the social services organization Chhaya, said basement apartments aren’t going away.

“They are here to stay. It is the city’s responsibility to ensure that they’re safe,” she said. 

Seecharran said that requires time, money and being made a priority.

“Many of the people who were impacted by this storm are exactly the same people who were most impacted by the COVID pandemic,” she said.