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Under Comptroller's Plan, Basements Could Be the New Lofts

New York City

Hurricane Ida, basement apartments, flooding, Loft Law, Scott Lander, co-op conversions.

Nearly one year ago, Hurricane Ida killed 13 New Yorkers, most of them trapped in flooded basements.

Aug. 30, 2022

Could basement apartments become the new lofts? It's a distinct possibility under New York City Comptroller Brand Lander's proposed Basement Resident Protection Law, which would create a “basement board” to oversee the conversion of illegal basement apartments into legal residences and ensure that residents of these apartments have access to tenant’s rights, such as eviction protection, City Limits reports. Lander's plan would also help homeowners put in place basic safety features to protect tenants from floods and fires.

The report proposes legalizing and registering rental units via a legislative roadmap modeled after a law New York State enacted in 1982, the so-called Loft Law, which triggered a wave of conversions of commercial and manufacturing spaces into legal residences. It was part of the larger tsunami of co-op conversions that swept the city in the 1980s.

“The idea of this legislation is that it would create a kind of interim set of rights, responsibilities and protections that would go really well with a pathway to legalization,” Lander tells City Limits. Any laws on the issue would have to be passed by the state Legislature

Lander's plan arrives shortly before the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Ida, which killed 13 New Yorkers, many of them trapped inside flooded basements. As The City reports, 109 families displaced by the storm are still living in hotels while searching for permanent housing.

Lander’s proposal would require owners of occupied basement or cellars to register them, and would give temporary legal status to such units for up to five years—a change from current policy, in which most of the units would be deemed uninhabitable.

His plan would require those apartments to have a fire and carbon monoxide alarm, a backwater protection valve to protect the unit from overflowing sewer water as well as basic services such as heat, hot water and electricity. The city and the state would offer financial assistance for such upgrades, and the basement board created under the plan would be charged with setting new requirements for legally recognized units and ensuring compliance.

Lander’s analysis found that 10%, or 43,000, of the city’s basements and cellars are at risk of flooding from rainfall or storm surges, and that number is expected to triple in the next 30 years as sea levels rise. The number of occupied basement and cellar units across the city is still unknown due to their secrecy, but estimates suggest they house at least 100,000 city residents — and that number could be much higher.

“This is an issue that our policymakers have neglected for decades now,” Ryan Chavez of the Cypress Hills Local Development Corp. tells The City. “I would have hoped that after the tragedies during Ida last year, that would have been a wakeup call for our policymakers. Shockingly, it has not been.”

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