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NYC housing crisis could get boost from legalized basement apartments

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A new study explores the idea of converting basements and outlines a pilot program

Flickr/Garrett Ziegler

Even though the De Blasio administration is working hard to address the current affordable housing crisis, there’s still a long way to go. Demand for apartments that are under market rate is on the rise—just recently, for example, the affordable housing lottery for 325 Kent Avenue in the Domino redevelopment drew in 84,000 applicants for 104 units.

The Citizens Housing and Planning Council has conducted a study [PDF!] that explores the feasability of utilizing basements and cellars as an alternate form of housing (h/t Crain’s New York). Current laws make it difficult and expensive to convert basements into legal apartments.

But the CHPC believes that by creating a pilot program—similar to what it did with My Micro NY, which led to the Carmel Place micro-housing—the city could work out a way to make the process easier and provide incentives for homeowners who participate.

According to their study, there are between 10,000 and 38,000 basements that could potentially be converted into apartments under the program. By changing current housing and zoning laws, the city could put a dent in the housing crisis without adding more developments and creating apartments that could potentially rent below market rate.

However, there are several drawbacks. An interactive map created by CHPC shows that finding the perfect neighborhood for the pilot program will not come without challenges. In certain neighborhoods, the law requires that additional parking be added when an apartment is added to a single-family home. There are areas of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx where that rule doesn’t apply, but they’re also missing the buildings where such a pilot program could apply. Conversely, many homes in Queens, southeast Brooklyn, and some parts of the Bronx that could be part of a pilot program have this parking rule in place.

Another challenge: Community backing would be necessary to put these sorts of changes in place. In Queens, many residents have already expressed opposition to rezoning neighborhoods for three-family homes. Add to that, many residents and some city officials are concerned with the safety of basement apartments, though in New York there are already many that are illegally occupied.

However, if a pilot program was put in place—and proved successful—the city could consider reconstructing laws to make it easier for homeowners to convert basements in single-family residences into legal apartments. In doing so, two objectives can be accomplished: more affordable housing would become readily available, and many homeowners can avoid foreclosure due to the extra income.