Illegal Conversions in New York City
What Are They and What Are We Going to Do About Them?
According to NYC’s official government website, an illegal conversion is altering an existing residential (or commercial) structure to include additional rooms, space, or units without permission from the Department of Buildings.
Altering a basement, cellar, or attic to make apartments or rentable space is considered an illegal conversion. Subdividing any other area of a house/apartment (or any building, other than its zoned purpose) is also considered an illegal conversion.
Why Is This Illegal?
Well, let’s start with the recent basement apartment drownings right here in New York, where 11 people died just last week due to flooding in these illegal conversions. The flood was caused by Hurricane Ida’s torrential downpour that dropped more than three inches of rain in only one hour.
These people died because they were trapped behind an incredibly powerful wall of water, blocking their only exit.
Many other unsafe and substandard conditions exist in many of these cases. Common issues are electrical wiring, gas and plumbing, and light or ventilation problems. These issues are why the Department of Buildings requires a safety inspection certificate for these buildings.
The housing demand in many New York City boroughs is greater than supply, especially for affordable housing. There are many undocumented immigrants and other vulnerable, low-income residents who cannot afford regular housing options.
The quest to find affordable housing is how basement apartments became popular for local homeowners as an extra income source. It was a welcomed new option for the immigrant community, as well. These units are low-cost and don’t require legal documents to rent them.
Aside from the obvious safety issues these illegal conversions present, the city does not have any official records of which houses have them or where they all are. Estimates range from a conservative 50,000 to more than 100,000 homes in New York City neighborhoods that have the conversions.
In addition, the penalties are steep for violations — $1,000 a day, up to $25,000 until the violation is corrected. Such law does not incentivize homeowners to report themselves, despite recent calls from city officials to do so. Many rely on the rental income, as well.
Lastly, undocumented immigrants that often occupy these basement conversions are also reluctant to report the locations. They fear eviction or displacement, as well as deportation. For many, these dwellings are their homes – and the only affordable option.
How Do We Solve This?
Extreme weather events are predicted to increase in frequency in the coming years. It is a challenge the city is therefore trying to address quickly. The problem, however, is multifarious. Finding a solution will take working together with various community organizations.
Mayor Bill de Blasio seems to have a clear understanding of the immensity of these issues and is implementing a new plan for the future. However, the plan is stymied by the lack of information on where the people are located, who may need the help.
To urge homeowners and renters to “come clean” and report illegal conversions, the city assures that immigrants will not be deported or evicted if they call 911 for help. As for homeowners, they are working on trying and implementing programs and funding to assist them in bringing properties up to code.
New York Governor Kathy Hochui, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Queens Borough President Donald Richards presented a united front at a press conference last Thursday, where they promised change and reform. De Blasio also announced plans for an early warning system that involves mandatory evacuations and travel bans.
You can report an illegal conversion online at the following link: