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City seeks to create livable basement apartments through new pilot program

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A pilot program to create new, affordable basement units will roll out in East New York

There could soon be an influx of basement apartments in New York City, at a time when the city’s affordable housing crisis has become all the more dire. City Council members Brad Lander, Fernando Cabrera, Rafael Espinal, and Inez Barron introduced legislation calling for a pilot program that would create “habitable apartments in basements and cellars of certain one- and two-family dwellings.”

The legislation has the backing of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who allocated $11.7 million for a pilot program in East New York. That particular neighborhood was chosen thanks to its mix of one- and two-family homes, which often have unoccupied (or illegally occupied) basement units.

“In East New York, I can comfortably estimate that over 75% of the basements are being rented illegally, so this will help homeowners by providing an avenue for income, while helping tenants by providing an affordable and safe place to live,” Espinal said in a statement. He also noted that this was one of the key points in the East New York rezoning plan, which passed in 2016.

The term “safe” is key here: The rules governing basement apartments in New York City by and large discourage renting these units with some exceptions, namely if they have legal ceiling heights, proper waterproofing, and other safety measures in place.

Under the new legislation, the city’s Department of Buildings would modify its existing codes for basement units to give homeowners more clear guidelines on how they can bring these spaces up to a livable standard; the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development will also provide subsidies to homeowners who want to participate in the pilot. (Those homeowners “must have an income at or below 165% of Area Median Income, and occupy the home as their primary residence,” per a press release.)

“The City is using innovative strategies to unlock more affordable housing at every level – including the basement,” De Blasio said in a statement. “This program will increase the stock of affordable housing in East New York, provide additional income to homeowners, and ensure tenant safety. This administration will continue to utilize every tool we have to tackle affordability head on.”