Greed the Reason for Illegal Basement Apartments

The Landlord Greed of illegal basement apartments spelled death after Ida, in similar ways to CO cases.

By Rebecca Martin

The recent deaths of East coast residents from flooding due to Hurricane Ida, many of whom were tenants in basement apartments, have brought renewed scrutiny on illegal basement apartments. It is estimated that in the five boroughs throughout the city of New York, there are around 50,000 illegally converted basements. Approximately 114,000 New Yorkers reside in illegal basement apartments.  See our related blog to carbon monoxide deaths this week in a Chicago basement apartment.

Illegal basement apartments flood

The greed of renting an illegal basement apartment cost lives after Hurricane Ida as the safe guards circumscribe the circumstances for an apartment below grade were ignored to maximize profits over people.

In 2019,  New York began a crackdown on illegal apartments, issuing 5,151 violations that year. And as the 2020 census approached, extra efforts were put into documenting all residents of New York City.

Illegal Basement Apartments Rented to Poorest

The problem with such crackdowns on property owners offering unregistered rental units is that many of these units are rented to immigrants. Many immigrants are not very keen on being counted by the government, whether here legally or not. This is why the Trump administration’s push to add a citizenship question on the census failed. It was argued that only through an accurate accounting of all residents could New York rise to the challenge of addressing housing for everyone.

Property owners who wish to avoid fines are also often reticent to offer information on the tenancy of their apartments. So historically these illegal apartments have not been accurately accounted for.

Basement apartments are an old concept. Originally called Garden Flats in England, they exist in almost every large older city like London, New York City , Boston and Washington DC. In the mid nineteenth century the term ‘English basement” caught on and became fashionable. It referred to any finished lower level of a building. These English basements were often partially or wholly underground.

Code Needs Enforcement of Illegal Basement Apartments

Building codes referred to those lower levels as “basements” if they were partially underground and 50% above the curb level, and “cellars” if they were more than 50% underground. In New York City all cellars are illegal to rent out as apartments. Often cellar apartments, if they have windows at all, have windows too small for an adult to climb through.

According to NYC Housing Preservation & Development

“Occupants of illegal basement and cellar apartments face potential dangers such as carbon monoxide poisoning, inadequate light and ventilation, and inadequate egress in the event of a fire.”

This is particularly true of illegal basement apartments which do not meet any of the qualifications that a legal basement apartment might.

In the case of basement apartments, there are different levels of occupancy. A basement might be occupied by a family member of the property owner if the rooms meet minimum size requirements, have a 7’6”  ceiling height and are water and damp-proofed to ground level if soil conditions are determined to require it.

Basement Apartment Standards Exist for Good Reason

The conditions for rental of a basement are more stringent requiring that every room have a window and the windowsill is at least six inches above the ground. The renters cannot include boarders.

“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 do property owners get away with renting apartments which are unregistered? Often they prey upon undocumented immigrants who are both unfamiliar with the laws and desperate for housing. Perhaps the apartment has been rented previously so the assumption is that all conditions have been met. There is some due diligence to be done on the renter’s part but many immigrants are unable or afraid to ask the pertinent questions.

Poor and Immigrant Tenants are Easily Exploited

Even if the tenants are aware that the apartment they are renting is illegal, they are unlikely to report it as they could face eviction. Normally illegal apartments in New York City rent for half of what a legal apartment might rent for. What few renters are aware of, however, is that it is legal to withhold rent until the situation is resolved. But if the property owner has no interest in bringing the unit up to  compliance, then a renter might find themselves searching for a new place to live.

Property owners themselves face criminal prosecution and stiff fines of up to $1000 per day or $15,000 for violations in New York City. They may also be responsible for other building code violations and legal fees. They may try to bypass regulations by categorizing their tenant as a guest. But if that guest pays rent, uses the property as a mailing address, makes maintenance requests and lives on the property long term; that guest is classified as a renter.

With such fines a possibility, why would a landlord choose to ignore regulations, other than to bring in additional income? When first looking at this question I thought back to a friend who lived in New York State and my fascination that almost all the lovely, large homes in his city had extra apartments and I accepted the explanation that high property taxes were the reason. But, looking into the issue deeper–while New York State may have hefty property taxes, New York City does not because of the many tax exemptions, New York City property taxes are fairly low. In fact, property taxes are just a little over the median for the entire country.

Extensive searching into the reasons for renting illegal apartments resulted in my concluding that property owners rent illegal apartments because they think they can get away with it.  They are aware that their rental units will not be approved or receive a certificates of occupancy. Because the demand from immigrants and others who are disadvantaged is there, they take advantage of the situation with the belief they either won’t get caught or the overall risk is worth it.

Greed over Profit Collide in Illegal Basement Apartments

The recent deaths are a haunting counterpoint to the monetary gains from illegal rentals.

“Of the 13 people found dead in the city from the storm, at least 11 were in basement units, which have long made up a significant part of New York City’s vast housing stock, a network of rentals that often lack basic safety features like more than one way to get in or out.”

Five of the six houses in which people were killed during the recent flood were illegal basement or cellar apartments which lacked the safety requirements for occupancy. The most basic of these requirements is more than one way to escape the rental.

Hurricane Ida arrived with such force that waters swept overnight into homes and cars leaving little time to react. Climate change has a part in making low lying areas more at risk for this type of event. People had little time to respond to the flash floods that came in overnight.

In some cases, the apartments collapsed under the deluge. Such is the case of Ms. Ramskriet and her 22-year-old son who drowned when the walls caved in and swept them back into the home. Her husband, Dameshwar, tried to save his wife.

“I tried to hold on to my wife, and she was trying to hold on to me,” he said on Thursday. He began to cry. “But the water pushed me away and I couldn’t feel her hand anymore.”

As tragedy hit several families, others were evacuated as raw sewage, mud and debris entered their homes. Overnight the Elizabeth River rose 8 – 10 feet over its banks bringing destruction with it. One can only imagine the horror in a cellar apartment with no way to escape. With rivers rising to 8 – 10 feet over their banks, the 7’6” foot ceiling minimum takes on a horrifying aspect.

Why was New York City unprepared for the flooding? Nine inches of rain came down in a very short period of time and Mayor Bill de Blasio blamed inaccurate weather projections. Weather forecasts had predicted a total of 10-14 inches of rain over the course of several days but the necessary alarms weren’t sounded. The public received the warnings, but not the sense of urgency needed to prepare for evacuation.

The urban community structure itself is partially to blame with concrete which is incapable of soaking up water supplanting porous earth and greenery. Outdated stormwater systems also contributed. And government officials are still failing to respond to changes in our global climate which is resulting to more severe storms and higher water levels. Again and again we are seeing lack of preparation for a world climate system which is changing. The entire area is experiencing 10-20% more rain than 60 years ago.

Although the National Weather Service began warning of torrential rains, their predictions were for anywhere from 3 – 8 inches of rain initially. As Hurricane Ida rolled in to collide with a northern cold front, the possibility that more rain would result went unheeded by the public who was ill prepared for the deluge that was about to follow. Warnings were issued but without an order to evacuate, the general public remained unconcerned over the severity of the warnings. And warnings of possible flash flooding likewise went unheeded.

New York City also loosened regulations over basement apartments in 2018. Currently there is a concerted move to bring basement apartments up to code. This paired with a need to update flood zone maps puts more people at risk. Changes in the weather are going to impact those in low lying dwellings more and more in the future.

“This wasn’t just one neighborhood or two neighborhoods in New York City seeing a flash flood [warning],” Kruczkiewicz said. “This was a flash flood emergency, which is a whole different level.”

From an interview with the Gothamist, Mayor de Blasio was quoted:

“So this is a different reality and I think the fact is, it calls upon us now to start adapting to much more extreme weather.”

He goes on to say that we need to take a new approach to severe storms with evacuation plans and travel bans in conjunction with federal funds to institute changes on a massive scale. The MTA was also impacted by the fast rising water with subways at an obvious risk.

Unlike Hurricane Sandy which impacted coastal areas, de Blasio says that basement apartments need to be considered when dealing with extreme weather.

“We know some of the areas where they’re predominant. We’re saying to people early, including with cell phone alerts, which are very effective, prepare for the possibility of evacuation from this point on. So everyone is hearing that we may order them out. And then we would send, if God forbid came to that moment, we would send first responders out to go door to door literally getting people out.”

The incomprehensible thing about this interview is in NYC’s plans to develop a flood wall which is decried by environmentalists as actually working against the environment’s ability to modulate flooding. This plan calls for removing 1000 trees and diverting water to other areas while decreasing the amount of green space needed to absorb rainfall.

I raised my eyebrows at this plan. I live on a river which floods often. My woods and trees are undisturbed and provide erosion control from the frequent changes in the river’s level. They slow run off to prevent my entire property from sloughing into the river. I would have to see details of this plan to understand the logic. The trees root systems seem to be nature’s answer to flood damage.

What is obvious is that cities that are in the paths of future extreme storms need to look at traditional housing and very intently at basement and cellar apartments. The problem of extreme storms is intensifying over time yet we are still not willing to take a hard look at our urban spaces with the future in mind. We also need to re-evaluate what properties lie in potential flood plains as the weather continues to change.

Hurricane Ida caused 66 deaths and indirectly caused 43 deaths and became the 6th costliest hurricane of all time. It hit the gulf coast as a category 4 storm and deluged New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania as a post-tropical storm. Weather conditions existed that increased the potential for flooding. And people perished in basement and cellar apartments, most of which were illegally occupied.

While laws exist to regulate the use of basement apartments, more efforts must be made to bring them up to code. At the same time we are looking forward to more extreme rainfall as a result of tropical storms due to global changes in the weather.  Is it really enough to bring rentals up to code?  Would lives have been saved? Of course, lives would have been saved with adequate exits and construction. But the problem is still worrisome as to whether bringing these properties to code will prevent future tragedies unless other plans are implemented.

This is an issue that exists on a neighborhood level and on a city wide level. And ultimately it exists on a federal level as we see outdated power grids contributing to storm deaths along with other infrastructure deficits.

“If there was ever proof that we need to address this basement issue, this is it,” said Annetta Seecharran, the executive director of the Chhaya Community Development Corporation, a group that works on housing issues for low-income South Asian and Indo-Caribbean New Yorkers. “We’re going to continue to have these climate-related issues.”

While NYC considers measures to increase the safety for occupants of basement units and means to legalize them through regulations and help with costs for converting the units to meet safety standards, there is still a larger question looming. What do we do to ensure there is no next time?

New York is not the only U.S. city struggling with the problem and flooding is not the only problem with basement apartments. The problem of basement apartments exists in all large established cities. An equally foreseeable problem is carbon monoxide poisoning in basement apartments. See our related blog about the carbon monoxide deaths in a Chicago basement apartment here.

There are many concerns about basement apartments in general and their impact on neighborhoods. Many of them are related to maintaining neighborhood integrity such as concerns about parking, garbage service, overcrowding in schools, etc. Any time a neighborhood expands its units, whether legally or illegally there will be concerns. But now we are all taking a hard second look at safety issues that can exist due to recent tragedies. The solution is still a long way off.






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