Op-Ed | Albany must act now to save the lives of tenants in basements and cellars

A dark stairwell with illuminated by a slightly opened door at the top of the stairs.
Photo via Getty Images

Just days from the start of hurricane season on June 1, Albany has one last chance to pass legislation that could save the lives of New Yorker tenants vulnerable to storms.

From the unprecedented storm surge and widespread damage of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, to the record-shattering rainfall and flash flooding caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ida, New Yorkers know all too well the dangers hurricanes and extreme rainfall events bring to our city. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers living in basement and cellar apartments remain in particular danger. For them, the risks are nearly year-round and exist even if they live outside of hurricane evacuation zone boundaries. Hurricane Ida caused 13 deaths in New York City – 11 of them were people who lived in unregulated basement apartments in Queens.

Other cities, like Toronto and Washington, DC, have proven that many basement and cellar apartments can be made safe with basic safety investments. Unfortunately, outdated state rules in New York – like the state multiple dwelling law – make it all but impossible to improve safety and legalize these apartments.

Our failure to allow this important form of housing doesn’t stop New Yorkers from living in basements and cellars – thousands of families struggling to find affordable housing are living in basements and cellars as we write. It just prevents New York City from regulating these apartments and ensuring that tenants have basic safeguards, including measures to protect against flooding and rain, and legal protections so they can blow the whistle about unsafe conditions. So continuing to ignore the problem doesn’t benefit anyone. It simply leaves vulnerable families at risk.

There is a solution: Albany can give New York City the power to relax state-law barriers, provide a pathway to legalization for basement apartments, and help homeowners pay for the cost of upgrades to ensure the safety of tenants. A bill in Albany would do just that – and thanks to years of advocacy by tenants, homeowners, and community groups, the concept has the support of Mayor Adams, dozens of legislators, and Governor Hochul. It’s long past time the bill advanced to the Governor’s desk.

Some legislators oppose the bill because they fear an influx of new residents to their neighborhoods; we believe that concern is deeply misguided. Basements and cellars are already occupied by tens of thousands of tenants throughout the five boroughs. The question isn’t whether we’ll have families living in basements and cellars – it’s whether they will be safe.

New York City is doing its part. Years ago, the City launched a pilot program in East New York to test what reforms are needed to ease basement and cellar conversion. While the pilot has revealed that state-law barriers are the dominant obstacle, the City is actively addressing the local-law hurdles. City-wide zoning changes that will advance next year will clear the local roadblocks that prevent some homeowners from converting basements and cellars into safe, legal, and rentable apartments.

In the meantime, New York City Emergency Management has established a special warning system for those living in basement and cellar apartments. As a result, tenants and homeowners can sign up to receive notifications and phone calls about life-threatening weather conditions during emergencies. But emergency notifications about severe rain events to save people from drowning are the last line of defense for vulnerable New Yorkers whose lives may be in imminent danger. Due to the unpredictability and dangerousness of flash floods, once the waters begin to rise, there is little first responders can do to save people from drowning who are trapped in basement. Protecting lives requires proactive investment in basic safety solutions that make apartments less likely to flood in the first place.

Without state-law action, the core problem – tens of thousands of people living in apartments that are unsafe because state rules prevent thoughtful regulation – will not be addressed. The time for Albany to act is now – before the next deadly storm. The lives of our fellow New Yorkers may hang in the balance.

Jessica Katz is New York City’s Chief Housing Officer. Zachary Iscol is the Commissioner of the NYC Emergency Management Department