|Hilarious illustration by the Real Deal
Across the city, tens of thousands of people live in illegal basement apartments. The de Blasio administration aims to turn these units into legal affordable housing, but it’s not clear how the city will address the challenges associated with bringing these units up to code.
Earlier this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a citywide legalization initiative that would build on a pilot program launched in East New York last year. The mayor projects that it will add 10,000 affordable units over the next decade.
However, financial and logistical obstacles abound, including high costs, engineering issues, a lack of political will to shutter illegal apartments, and persuading homeowners to let the city randomly choose their tenants.
Experts say upgrading a basement or cellar unit can cost tens of thousands of dollars. The city’s building code requires, among other things, ceiling heights of at least eight feet, windows in every bedroom and many other rooms, a sprinkler system and at least one exit in basement apartments and two in cellars.
(Basements are partly below curb level but have at least half of their height above it. Cellars are more than half below curb level.)
“This idea has been kicked around for a while, but there’s no actual proposal of how it’s going to work or how it’s going to be safe,” said Stuart Saft, leader of Holland & Knight’s real estate group. “Even if money was no object, even if the city came along and said ‘we’ll pay for it,’ you still have the logistical problem of doing it.”
Though the mayor hasn’t released specifics on his plan, he has indicated that the city will fund low-interest loans for homeowners to bring below-ground units up to code. Jane Meyer, a spokesperson for the mayor, said the projects would be subject to regulatory agreements that lay out income restrictions in the same manner as other city-financed projects.
Former city planner Eric Kober, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, was skeptical that subsidized loans would be enough to incentivize landlords to legalize already-occupied units.
“You could raise the fines and penalties, but then you have to be willing to throw people out on the street,” Kober said, referring to tenants in illegal apartments. “And that raises a whole other set of issues about what happens to that household.”