Growing up in South Jamaica, Queens, I lived with the constant anxiety that my family might fall into homelessness. My mother had my siblings and I take trash bags full of our clothing to school with us, just in case we came home to find an eviction notice on our door.
During the pandemic, many New Yorkers are living with this same fear. While an eviction moratorium continues to protect most renters throughout the five boroughs for the time being, some of the most vulnerable people in our city are still not afforded that peace of mind.
The City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) issued 95 vacate orders for illegal dwellings between March and October last year. The tenants living in these dwellings, often basement apartments, are predominantly immigrants or those living on the economic margins of society, with few other options. Many of them end up homeless once they are evicted.
But there is no need to put vulnerable tenants out on the street because there is no need for their apartments to remain illegal. We already have a blueprint for ensuring people can stay in these dwellings – and there has never been a better time to follow it.
In 2019, Mayor de Blasio signed Local Law 49, which created a pilot program in East New York that allowed homeowners of certain one- and two-family dwellings to convert their basements into legal, affordable dwellings. The City offered low- or no-interest loans to eligible homeowners to help them bring these spaces up to code. Now we should take that program citywide.
Unfortunately, very few basement dwellings are compliant with building or fire codes, meaning tenants are forced to live in poor, and sometimes dangerous, conditions. By bringing these units out of the regulatory shadows with simple upgrades, the City can drastically increase the supply of direly needed affordable housing — estimated at more than 100,000 units — while helping homeowners earn extra income.
Unfortunately, the City cut the program’s funding down to almost nothing in the last fiscal year, as part of a series of COVID-induced budget cuts. That is exactly the kind of cut we cannot afford during a crisis.
I am glad the City Council has recently acted to extend program deadlines for the East New York basement conversion pilot, and I commend Council Member Darma Diaz for leading that effort. In addition to ensuring we protect the funding for the program as well, we should also loosen some of the requirements for dwellings without compromising the safety of tenants as well as expand the program citywide.
Such steps could include lowering the required ceiling height of existing units to 7 feet from 8 feet, which is in line with the International Building Code recommendations, and amending fire and building codes so that they are aligned on issues such as window size. We can also waive parking requirements for sub-grade units. If we do these things, we will open many more units to become legal housing.
Just as we don’t want to unfairly penalize tenants already living in basement apartments, we shouldn’t punish homeowners who undertook conversions to make these units more habitable. That is why the City should also consider an amnesty program to grandfather-in landlords who have already done unauthorized work to upgrade their basements into dwellings.
Units that have been converted should still be vetted by regulators to ensure compliance with building and fire codes. But creating comprehensive changes to our City’s regulatory approach to basement dwellings, given the exigencies we face during the pandemic, would also create greater clarity for homeowners and tenants alike.
A new bill introduced by Assembly Member Harvey Epstein and Senator Pete Harckham would legalize these and other accessory dwellings statewide, and direct the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal to create a financing program to help low- and moderate-income homeowners with conversions of basements, attics and garages. The State Legislature must prioritize passage of this bill as well.
If we are committed to an equitable recovery, it is time to get creative and smart about creating more legal affordable housing. No one should live in fear of returning home to an eviction notice — especially if common sense laws can prevent it.