The de Blasio administration’s basement pilot program is headed to hiatus after taking a hit in the city’s proposed budget, where funding is being reallocated towards more urgent budget matters related to the COVID-19 epidemic.
The program aimed to test ways to legalize basement apartments as a way to create new, sanctioned affordable housing units for tenants and help the moderate-income homeowners who might rent some of the spaces out. It was a key community demand during the negotiations over the East New York rezoning, the first of the mayor’s neighborhood redevelopment plans.
In the mayor’s executive budget, the basement pilot program is expected to see funds cut by $1.09 million in the coming year — leaving the program with only $91,580 for operations. Initially, the basement pilot program, which was launched last year, was slated to receive $12 million dollars for operational costs during a three-year period.
Dozens of nonprofits signed onto a letter last week asking the city to continue its financial support of the program. While acknowledging the stark budget reality facing the city, the signers insisted: “this is not the time to draw back support from programs that are critical to the most COVID-impacted populations in our city.”
“The virus is exposing the desperate need for safe spaces for vulnerable populations who need to socially distance,” the letter read. “It’s now more important than ever to help modernize and bring up to code informal basement apartment units, where living conditions may put people at risk of disease transmission.”
The basement pilot program stemmed from over a decade of advocacy by nonprofits such as the Chhaya Community Development Corporation, which founded the Basement Apartments Safe for Everyone (BASE) campaign in 2008.
A 2009 study by the Pratt Center for Community Development and Chhaya estimated that there are more than 114,000 units in New York City’s basement apartment housing stock.
It also became a featured capital investment in the 2016 East New York rezoning plan; the terms of agreement included the stipulation that legislation would allow for the study of the basement program to be piloted in the Brooklyn neighborhood, where low-income homeowners and low-income housing were at risk for predatory lenders and speculative investment.
“The dynamic of the housing market in the neighborhood, before COVID-19, has been that those homeowners really, really struggle,” says Michelle Neugebauer, the Executive Director at Cypress Hills LDC, a key player in community advocacy around the East New York rezoning. They struggle, some of them with high-price mortgages. They struggle against predators and house flippers and people that want to rip them off, the rising water bills and utility bills. It’s not easy,”
“And I would say that it was considered one of the few wins of the rezoning battle; there could be this pilot in East New York that at least for a small number of homeowners could help stabilize their finances by bringing in this additional source of income that would provide safe, habitable, healthy living accommodations for renters, not at high rates.”