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East New York pilot program will create livable basement apartments

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“We’ve been pushing for years to bring underground units into the light,” said one Council member

A new pilot program seeks to create safe basement housing in East New York.
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The city will launch a pilot program aimed at creating safe, legal basement apartments in East New York amidst the five borough’s dire affordable housing crisis.

The New York City Council voted to create a pilot program in Brooklyn’s Community Board 5 Wednesday that would help landlords transform certain illegal basement apartments into habitable, affordable units. Council member Brad Lander introduced the legislation, which is backed by Mayor Bill de Blasio and co-sponsored by nine other Council members, as a case study to eventually expand the program across the city.

“Converting basement units is an important way to address New York City’s affordability crisis,” Lander said during Wednesday’s stated City Council hearing. “It will also enable us to learn useful lessons that I hope will make it possible to smartly expand this program to neighborhoods in the future.”

The new policy would modify the city’s building and fire codes to allow qualified basement units to be made habitable and legal. An interagency group including the Department of Buildings, Department of Housing Preservation, and Development and Department of City Planning will determine how and whether a basement or cellar can be converted into a legal apartment.

The program will also kick in $12 million in low-interest loans and grants, which will be overseen by the Department of Housing Preservation (HPD), to low- and moderate-income homeowners for improvements so they may comply with the new regulations, according to Lander’s office.

For several decades, basement and cellars have been illegal and considered uninhabitable largely for public health reasons, according to HPD. Such units typically lack light and air and usually retain moisture, which can lead to unsafe living conditions such as mold.

There are plenty of legal, below ground apartments, but tenants who live in illegal units typically have no lease and limited rights. This makes complaining about conditions a non-starter because when an illegal apartment is brought to the Department of Building’s (DOB) attention an inspector typically visits the property, issues a violation, and orders the illicit unit vacated, according to DOB.

“We all know that those basements are unsafe because of the fact that the city fails to recognize them,” said Council member Rafael Espinal, who is a co-sponsor of the bill. “It’s finally time that we take a look at this conversation.”

The Basement Apartments Safe for Everyone (BASE) coalition, made up of community and housing advocates, has been working toward the creation of a program to legalize basement units for some 10 years and praised the council’s move toward protecting tenants and tapping into the underground units as an affordable housing resource.

“We see basement legalization as one tool to help homeowners lower their operating costs and provide safe, affordable housing for renters,” the coalition said in a statement. “Homeowners in East New York are battling harassment, rising costs and repair needs. and spikes in house flipping. Basement legalization is a much needed solution.”