Guide to NYC Basement Apartments

Originally posted on November 02, 2022 3:00 pm
Updated on October 24, 2022 9:20 pm

If you’ve ever walked around NYC, you’ve probably seen the beautiful brownstones that line many streets here. You’ve also likely noticed the basement apartments underneath those homes. Basement apartments are usually a cheaper way to live in a brownstone apartment. However, while they can be a great deal, basement apartments in the city can be a bit…tricky. Not all basement dwellings are well-built, and many are even illegal. So what are the pros and cons of basement living? How do you know if your basement dwelling is legal? More importantly, how do you know your basement apartment is safe?

When Are Basement Apartments Legal?

There are several ways to know if your basement-dwelling, or a dwelling you’re seeking to rent or buy, is legal. First and foremost, unless the dwelling in question meets minimum government requirements for air, light, sanitation, and egress, then a basement or cellar apartment is illegal. These requirements address safety concerns since people in basement apartments have a higher risk of carbon monoxide poisoning and egress in the event of a fire or other emergency. Similarly, for this reason, only the family renting the dwelling can live there. No other boarders are permitted to stay there.

There are also construction regulations that have to meet safety and comfort standards. For example, if more than half the dwelling is below the curb, it is considered a cellar, and cellar apartments are VERY illegal. You will likely be forced to vacate cellar apartments by the city. Other regulations include:

  • Ceilings must be at least seven feet tall.
  • Rooms like sleeping quarters, living rooms, kitchens, and bathrooms must meet minimum room sizes set by the government.
  • Walls must be damped and waterproofed.
  • Every room has to have at least one window.
  • The bottom of a yard or open space has to be six or more inches below the base of a window.
  • Must be inspected and approved by the department of buildings before anyone can move in. 

As long as these regulations are met, basement apartments are perfectly legal. That said, most of these regulations aren’t met. Most basement dwellings aren’t legal, and thousands of them are full of folks trying to score a deal.

Pros of Basement Apartments

Basement apartments are usually way cheaper than every other unit in their brownstone. This affordability can go a long way in the fight for affordable housing. Many housing justice advocates even see basement dwellings as the answer NYC needs to enact housing equity which can be a major step in solving the homeless crisis. While this is true, far more work must be done before basement dwellings can start to chip away at this issue. There are advocates for that change, though the necessary steps toward progress are moving rather slowly. However, there is progress being made.

Additionally, basement apartments are almost always floor-through apartments, meaning you’ll likely have a good amount of extra space for you and your family to stretch out. There’s also usually access to a backyard/outdoor space, which is extremely hard to find in the city. For these reasons, many people feel extremely lucky to score a basement dwelling. However, the cons outnumber the pros by a fair amount.

Cons of Basement Apartments

A ton of basement apartments in the city are illegal, even with the strict regulations the city places on them. It’s estimated that there are 30,000 illegal basement apartments in New York City, and they remain at large simply because it’s a difficult thing to regulate. The only way an inspector comes to a basement dwelling is if they are called there by a tenant, and most tenants are hypnotized by a great deal on rent.

However, even in legal basement dwellings, the good rent might not be enough to make up for the things you sacrifice. Light, especially, is hard to find in a basement apartment, even with one window in every room. This makes sense. After all, you’re largely underground, and light has trouble reaching underneath the earth. Plus, even with large windows, taller buildings usually block out what little sunlight is afforded to you.

Another window issue is privacy. Let’s say you have large windows in every room. The problem is those large windows usually face the sidewalk so that any passerby can look right into your living room. This is a difficult thing to square with if you like your privacy and can make you feel like you’re on display in a museum.

Remember when we talked about the increased dangers of basement-dwelling? These dangers included an increased risk of carbon monoxide poisoning and a lack of egress from fires. The lack of egress can sneak up on people, as many illegal cellar apartments have windows that are too small to climb out of in case of an emergency if there are windows at all.

This is precisely what happened in September of 2021 when Hurricane Ida brought about some of the worst floodings NYC had seen in years. Eleven people drowned in their basement apartments, trapped without a way to escape in homes that should have never been occupied in the first place. This tragic event only highlights the truth about most basement dwellings: the safety risks involved aren’t worth the reduced rent and increased space in most cases. It’s a hard lesson to learn, especially when intense storms are the ones teaching the classes.

In addition to the physical danger you put yourself in, there’s also the risk of getting in trouble with the city. We’ve already mentioned that NYC has no issue kicking people out of illegal basement dwellings. Government officials have no legal obligation to provide housing for these displaced tenants, many of whom have no idea they are living in an illegal apartment. 

What If I’m Living in an Illegal Basement Apartment?

If you are living in an apartment that you suspect might be illegal, move, if you can, before anything else. You need to make sure you have a safe place to live, so you aren’t forced out unexpectedly. Once you have secured an alternate living space, call 311 and report the basement apartment.

Those who report basement dwellings will not be asked for documentation regarding their citizenship status, so everyone is safe from repercussions and retaliation. Once the dwelling is reported, the city will send an inspector to see how bad the apartment is. Make sure that you, or someone you trust, is there to let the inspector into the apartment. If the inspector can’t enter the home, they will mark the case closed. This is bizarre but not unexpected. City inspectors are very busy.

How is the City Fixing This Problem?

NYC leadership is well aware of this problem and is taking steps to correct it. The Basement Apartment Conversion Pilot Program is aimed at owners of one to three-family row houses. The program gives these owners low or no interest loans depending on their neighborhood and financial situation. Many of these loans might also be forgiven under the right circumstances. Many people have already taken advantage of this program, but they have run into some roadblocks. 

The program has faced some major hurdles, one of which was the flooding of Hurricane Ida. The fact that almost every death in that incident was caused by a basement apartment has forced public support far away from basement dwellings. Even apartments that were legal and safe faced some flooding damage, which cost the people of the city millions in repairs. 

Aside from the public backlash of the flooding, the city budget for this project has been cut by a decent amount due to financial strains caused by the pandemic. Because of these reasons, the city has stopped owners from applying to the program. As such, the limited number of recipients has filled up fast. This means that even if you want to convert an illegal apartment into a legal one, you will have to pay for it out of pocket, which many people can’t do.

The program’s sponsor is the Basement Apartments Safe for Everyone, or BASE. They advocate for this program to increase affordable housing in the city, and contest that basement apartments, done right, are perfectly safe, even from major flooding events. They also urge people to support the program in a public way, as the money dished out so far is great, but not nearly enough to fix the issue. As of this writing, only eight owners were still part of the program.

Safety Precautions for Basement Apartments

The fact is that tens of thousands of people in the city occupy basement dwellings. Another fact is that climate change has all but guaranteed that these large storms will be around for a long time. So what can people living in basement apartments do to increase the safety of their dwellings? The answer is, sadly, that it may not be up to the individuals who live in these apartments. Tenants aren’t really able to make demands of their landlords since most basement dwellings are illegal.

Individuals who live in these basements are advised to track major storms and to get out of their homes quickly if the storm is set to hit New York. People seeking a basement dwelling need to find one with multiple exits, large windows, and good ventilation. It also pays to get to know a future landlord or owner. If you get along with your landlord, there’s a chance they’ll be willing to make renovations and address safety concerns.

If you’re seeking help from others, BASE is a great resource for those seeking housing justice and equity. They might not be able to help make your basement apartment safer, but they can help you find new housing through a first-time homeowner program. If you still want to rent, they have a tenant advocacy program as well. If you want to join the organization, check out their website and see what you can do for the tenants of NYC.

Conclusion

Many basement dwellings in the city should meet rigorous construction and quality-of-life standards. However, well over a decade of inaction has left many of these apartments in a limbo of legality. These homes aren’t supposed to be here and will get shut down if they are reported. However, the only people who would know about an illegal dwelling are those who’d live there, and they can’t report their homes without getting kicked out. Owners will also not report these dwellings because they’d lose a source of income and, likely, get fined.

This means there are thousands of homes that are extremely dangerous to live in, even though they are incredibly cheap. Housing advocates, and the city itself, want to correct this problem. However, they consistently run into funding problems, along with public opinion against basement housing. There are ways to make basement housing safe, but it needs the proper attention, time, and public education to take the right steps forward. This can be a major step in solving the NYC housing crisis, but the city, and the people who live here, need to treat it as an actual solution.

Too many people have died in NYC due to unsafe basement housing, but it’s not an issue that will disappear. As long as brownstones exist here, basement dwellings will be a haven for those seeking cheap housing. The city needs to care about the safety of these homes before more people are taken advantage of. No one should be able to drown in their homes in this day in age, especially those in underprivileged communities, as they are the ones who occupy these apartments the most. Basement dwellings can be a great asset to NYC. We need to make sure they’re safe for residents. 

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