Police officials are investigating the six incidents in which basement apartment dwellers lost their lives during last Wednesday's storm, opening up the potential for criminal charges against homeowners who may have created dangerous conditions for their tenants.
Of the 13 people who were found dead in New York City, 11 were trapped in a flooded basement, and the Department of Buildings has said that five of the six of these were illegally converted basement or cellar units.
Multiple agency investigations into building-related deaths are not unusual. Following its investigation, the NYPD may elect to refer the case to the Queens or Brooklyn District Attorney's office. Five of the homes where people died were located in Queens, while one was in Brooklyn. The one basement apartment which was a legal unit was located on Grand Central Parkway in Queens.
During his morning press briefing on Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio was vague about what kinds of punishment homeowners who rented their basements illegally might face.
"We are going to hold people accountable, but not in a way that punishes the tenants," he said.
The mayor called regulating illegal basement apartments a "Herculean task." Across many neighborhoods, such units offer an affordable housing option to low-income New Yorkers, especially immigrants, while also helping some middle-class landlords pay their mortgage.
In 2019, the city launched a pilot program to legalize such units by providing low or no-interest loans to homeowners seeking to bring the apartments up to code. But the mayor recently called the effort a failure, since it failed to solicit much interest.
"I could tell you that we've got some miraculous plan to solve the illegal basement problem overnight. We don't," de Blasio said. "It is a massive structural problem in the city. It has been for decades. We don't have an immediate solution to this one."
By definition, a basement is a unit that has at least one-half of its height above the curb level, while a cellar has more than one-half of its height below the curb.
The city estimates there are at least 50,000 basement units, housing more than 100,000 residents. But one tenant advocacy group, NYC Base Campaign, has counted more than 312,000 such units across the city.