NYCEM Commissioner Joins Assemblymember Epstein and Supportive Legislators in Call for the Inclusion of Safe Basement and Cellar Apartments in Final Budget

Bill would create tenant protections for over 100,000 New Yorkers living in basement apartments and prevent further tragedies in emergencies

Albany – Assemblymember Harvey Epstein, chair of the Assembly subcommittee on Retention of Homeownership and Stabilization of Affordable Housing, was joined by Commissioner Zach Iscol of New York City Emergency Management (NYCEM) and legislators from Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Manhattan in a call for the inclusion of S2276B/A1075B in the final budget. This bill allows for the establishment of a program to address the legalization of specified accessory dwelling units in New York City.

In the 2022-2023 NYS Capital Budget, $85,000,000 was made available for the purposes of creating and upgrading accessory dwelling units across New York State, which New York City could tap to help retrofit units for safety. Thousands of New Yorkers, overwhelmingly immigrants and people of color, living in basement and cellar apartments stand to gain strong protections afforded to tenants in legal apartments.

Approximately 44 basement apartment residents died in illegally converted unsafe units during Hurricane Sandy and 11 in Hurricane Ida. With a regulatory framework that ensures safety, these tragedies could have been prevented. As the climate crisis worsens, we will only see an increase in extreme weather events.

Under the bill, the City would get the local control, legal tools, and discretion it needs to create a program to bring existing illegal basement units into conformance with the state’s safety standards without having to comply with elements of the state multiple dwelling law that have historically inhibited the formalization of these units, including the State’s ban on basement apartments except in very limited circumstances. Because they live in unauthorized housing, tenants in basement apartments are disincentivized from reporting unsafe conditions for fear of losing their homes entirely.

The bill has the support of New York City Mayor Eric Adams, New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, City Comptroller Brad Lander, and a coalition of groups including AARP New York, the BASE Campaign, Chhaya CDC, Citizens Housing & Planning Council, the Center for NYC Neighborhoods, Housing Justice for All, Churches United for Fair Housing (CUFFH), and the Regional Plan Association.

“There are tens of thousands of New Yorkers living in basement apartments right now. They live without the same strong tenant protections that other renters enjoy. We can’t ignore the fact that illegal apartments exist. We should recognize that they are an important part of our city’s affordable housing stock and ensure that they are safe for the residents. We need to create a pathway to safely legalize these apartments in our city and ensure that no more basement and cellar apartment tenants are harmed in future weather events or emergencies.” said Assemblymember Harvey Epstein.

“As the Commissioner of NYC Emergency Management, it’s my job to ensure the city is ready to respond to the next emergency and protect the safety of all New Yorkers. To protect the tens of thousands of New Yorkers who live in dangerous basements and cellars, we need Albany to play their part and pass this legislation,” said NYC Emergency Management Commissioner Zach Iscol. “With Hurricane Ida, our city saw firsthand the devastation with the death of 11 people who lived in unregulated basement apartments. Through this legislation, we can save lives and make targeted investments to promote safety with legal basements and cellars.”

Every time there is record flooding in New York City, we hear a lot of promises to surviving families that have yet to be honored. The can cannot be kicked down the road any further. We need action in Albany to create a pathway for New York City to enact critical safety standards that will make subgrade apartments safe and healthy for tenants and renovations affordable to homeowners. We implore our lawmakers to act now” said Annetta Seecharran, Executive Director, Chhaya CDC.

“Tens of thousands of New York City tenants currently live-in basement and cellar apartments without the most basic housing safety regulations and under constant threat of a vacate order. The City can make these homes and residents safer through local regulation, but convoluted State rules stand in the way. The budget proposal in front of the State legislature would simply ensure that existing small homes upgrading a basement apartment will not suddenly be forced to comply with a State law intended for large apartment buildings. This is a narrow reform that would have a huge impact on public safety” said Sylvia Morse, Policy Program Manager, Pratt Center for Community Development.

“Thousands of New Yorkers, disproportionately people of color, live in basement or cellar apartments that can’t be made legal because of archaic State regulations. It is not an answer to put them out on the street. It is not an answer to let them languish under the radar in unsafe conditions. And inaction only perpetuates unsafe conditions. The only answer is action - to pass this legislation, and have the City stand up a program for homeowners to make these units safe and legal” said Howard Slatkin, Executive Director, Citizens Housing and Planning Council.

“It is disgraceful that the New York State Legislature continues to drag its feet on passing legislation that would allow New York City to facilitate health and safety upgrades to existing basement apartments. Every day that passes without action puts vulnerable New Yorkers at risk of living in unsafe conditions. The legislature must prioritize the passage of this crucial legislation and take immediate action to ensure that all residents have access to safe and legal housing options. The time for excuses is over. Lives are at stake, and it's time for our lawmakers to act accordingly” said Ryan Chavez, Director of Small Homes Programs, Cypress Hills LDC.