The evacuation legislation introduced in the City Council last week is geared at keeping tenants in flood-prone basement apartments out of harm’s way.
Kevin P. Coughlin / Office of the Governor
Flooding in Queens following Hurricane Ida in 2021.
Following flash floods that brought the city to a halt in late September, a new bill was introduced in the City Council last week to ensure that landlords distribute flood evacuation plans to their tenants.
The legislation would require building owners to deliver the evacuation protocols to residents when they sign a lease, and maintain instructions on what to do in the event of a flood “in a common area of the building” for everyone to see.
“This is really for New Yorkers that are living in basement and first floor apartments,” explained Councilmember Carlina Rivera, the legislation’s main sponsor.
By 2050, one out of every three cellars and basements in one-, two-, and three-family homes across the city will be at-risk for flooding, according to a report produced by the Comptroller’s office. When Hurricane Ida hit in 2021, it took the lives of 13 New Yorkers, 11 of whom drowned in mostly unregulated basement apartments in Queens and Brooklyn, the report also highlighted.
There are an estimated tens of thousands of unregulated basement or cellar apartments across the city.
“The city still has not done enough to prepare for extreme weather events. So we have to move faster to create better infrastructure. But we also need to equip tenants with the information so they know what to do in the event of a crisis or a disaster,” Rivera told City Limits, noting that evacuation protocols will be printed in several languages.
A study published by the non-profit Citizens Housing & Planning Council (CHPC) found that the city’s Emergency Preparedness Guide, which informs New Yorkers on what to do when all kinds of disasters strike, includes “very little content surrounding safety precautions for flash flooding.”
The guide instructs tenants to “stay indoors” during a storm, and that those who live in a basement should “move to a higher floor during periods of heavy rain.” It also warns not to “retreat into an enclosed attic unless you have a saw or other tool to cut a hole in the roof.”
While the new legislation aims to make flood evacuation guidelines more accessible, housing advocates warn that many folks will still get left out.
“The most vulnerable basement apartment dwellers are the ones who are in units that are not lawful units, and don’t have legal leases. So this [legislation] doesn’t do anything for those people,” said Howard Slatkin, executive director of the CHPC and member of the NYC Basement Apartments Safe for Everyone (BASE) coalition.
“People in those units don’t have a lawful lease so they don’t have the ability to count on the city to intervene. They’re in a gray market area of the housing world. So unless we have a path to bring them into a legal status, there’s not a way to address these important safety issues,” Slatkin added.
The ongoing battle over the legalization of basement and cellar homes came to a head last spring, when legislation that would make it easier for the city to change the zoning and building codes for such units failed to pass in Albany.
In the absence of a legalization plan, Councilmember Rivera says sharing flood-risk information can still be a powerful tool to keep people safe when a climate emergency rolls around.
“The conversation on how to regulate these apartments is ongoing. Meanwhile, we can spread the information on what [residents’] options are when faced with a disaster,” said Rivera.
“We have to be at the forefront of implementing policies that combat climate and ensure New Yorkers are empowered and informed when there is flooding and heavy rainfall. Big storms are going to keep happening. So it’s urgent,” she added.
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