Late-Session Bill Would Add More NYC Neighborhoods to Basement Legalization Plan

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“If it were up to me, all of New York City would be included,” said State Sen. Julia Salazar, who is looking to expand the state’s recently passed basement legalization pathway to more neighborhoods.

Adi Talwar

Homes in the Cypress Hills neighborhood of Brooklyn. The neighborhood is excluded from the state’s recently passed basement legalization plan, despite serving as the city’s testing grounds for an earlier conversion pilot program.

Although the recently passed state budget included a new basement legalization pilot, less than a quarter of the city’s community districts were selected to participate—but a last-minute bill could extend the program to additional neighborhoods prone to flooding.

Of the city’s 59 community districts, only 15 were chosen for the five-year legalization pilot authorized by the state. These encompass four in the Bronx (districts 9, 10, 11, and 12), four in Brooklyn (districts 4, 10, 11, and 17), and six in Manhattan (districts 2, 3, 9, 10, 11, and 12). However, only one district in Queens was included (district 2), and none from Staten Island.

The carve-outs in Queens, despite the area’s vulnerability to flooding and the basement drowning deaths of 11 people in the borough during Hurricane Ida in 2021, compounded with the omission of Brooklyn Community Board 5 (CB5)—the site of the city’s basement conversion pilot launched in 2019—came as a shock and disappointment to some community leaders.

“It’s our communities in Cypress Hills and East New York that demonstrated the need for the state to act,” said State Sen. Julia Salazar, referring to the original pilot that took place in Senate District 18, which she represents. “So it is totally counterintuitive that Brooklyn CB5 would be excluded.”

Salazar and Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas of Queens introduced a bill earlier this month to expand the pilot to a handful of additional neighborhoods, including Brooklyn CB5 and Queens CB1, 3, and 4. With only a week left in the current session in Albany, they’re hoping to see it move before legislators wrap their work on June 6.

Some city lawmakers have opposed basement legalization, citing concerns about safety and increased residential density. Besides the addition of the four community districts, Salazar’s bill seeks no further changes to the state pilot, which she hopes will allow it to pass more quickly.

“The priority is that we add these community districts to the pilot, and we didn’t want that to be delayed by any other changes that the legislature would have to debate and consider,” said Salazar. “We felt that this should be really easy and really straightforward.” 

Experts estimate that there are tens of thousands of basement or cellar units across the five boroughs, many occupied illegally, leaving tenants—often immigrant and low-income New Yorkers who can’t afford other options—with fewer protections and at particular risk for safety issues.

Their plight has become more urgent in the face of increased rain and flooding caused by climate change, prompting a push for state legislation in recent years that would clear the way for the city to regulate underground units. 

“I am really thankful to the leadership of State Sen. Salazar for quickly taking action and trying to fix this situation,” said Councilmember Sandy Nurse, who represents Brooklyn CB5 and adds that its exclusion “should never have been a problem in the first place.”

The pilot included in the budget effectively allows for exceptions to the state’s Multiple Dwelling Law (MDL) for projects in the selected neighborhoods. The MDL dictates the construction, maintenance, and safety standards of buildings with three or more residential units.

It proved the most significant obstacle in the city’s earlier pilot attempt, which connected property owners of one- to three-family homes in East New York with loans and other assistance to facilitate basement conversions. When a two-family home attempted to legally convert to become a three-family home, it became subject to the MDL, with its stricter requirements that significantly raised the construction costs. 

According to testimony from Department of Buildings officials at an executive budget hearing earlier this month, most of the homeowners who applied to the city’s pilot were “overwhelmingly” earning below 80 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI), about $111,840 for a family of three, despite the pilot being open to those earning up to 165 percent of the AMI. 

According to the DOB, the primary reasons applicants said they were interested in making conversions were to house a family member or to improve their financial security. 

“To me, it speaks to the fact that we have a lot of homes where you have multiple generations living together,” Nurse said in response to that testimony. “People do the best they can, and one of the options is basements.”

As the city grapples with high rents and a historic 1.4 percent rental vacancy rate—the lowest in over half a century—Salazar believes legalized basement units can help fill the shortage.

“They can be a valuable part of the affordable housing market in New York City as long as people have proper egress and they have what they need in order for it to be safe and legal,” the lawmaker said. 

For Councilmember Nurse, it’s essential that her community board and others be included, noting that flooding will remain a problem for years to come.

“We were communities that were impacted by Hurricane Ida, and the cloudbursts are going to continue to be part of our future,” said Nurse. “The reality here in New York City, where rain drops so fast and can create flood situations very quickly—we want to make sure people aren’t drowning in their own homes.”

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