Amidst housing shortage, city officials digging deep to find new options

Amidst housing shortage, city officials digging deep to find new options

Amidst housing shortage, city officials digging deep to find new options

By Sally Goldenberg

06/28/2018 05:04 AM EDT

As New York City grapples with a chronic housing shortage, city officials are furthering plans to unlock the residential potential of basements in a modest pilot program supporters hope to apply citywide.

The City Council will introduce a bill Thursday to establish a three-year program in East New York, Brooklyn, where a rezoning in 2016 allowed for substantially more development. The legislation estimates that more than 100,000 tenants live in illegal basements and cellars across the city, subjecting themselves to safety risks in exchange for an affordable place to live.

"Basement units have the potential to be a real and important resource of affordable housing, especially in outer-borough neighborhoods," said Council Member Brad Lander, who is sponsoring the bill and first introduced the idea years ago. "We have work to do to make sure they're safe and healthy, but also available as an affordable housing resource ... in a city with a desperate need for more affordable housing."

The main deterrent, according to the bill, is "the prohibitive cost of bringing such apartments into compliance with all the legal requirements for living spaces in the city's housing and construction codes." To that end, it would waive certain Department of Buildings fees to facilitate the conversions, which could provide legal homes for "potentially tens of thousands of city residents."

Homeowners would have to ensure basement apartments have sprinklers, emergency escapes, smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, at least one window, barriers around boilers and furnaces and minimum ceiling heights.

The program would require the units be rented to people who do not earn more than 165 percent of the area median income — $120,615 for an individual and $154,935 for a family of three.

The city's housing agency will seek a community-based organization to administer the experiment and will provide low-interest financing to qualifying homeowners.

Mayor Bill de Blasio allocated $11.7 million over three years for this program in February, and anticipates it would enable the conversion of up to 5,000 basement apartments. He is open to applying it citywide, depending on the results of the pilot, spokeswoman Jane Meyer said.

"The city is using innovative strategies to unlock more affordable housing at every level — including the basement," de Blasio said in a prepared statement. "This program will increase the stock of affordable housing in East New York, provide additional income to homeowners, and ensure tenant safety."

Council Member Rafael Espinal, who represents East New York, estimated 10,000 people in his district likely live in the basement of a one- or two-family home.

City buildings inspectors generally only respond to complaints and rarely do proactive enforcement of the potentially dangerous living conditions, he said. They will begin surveying each home in the area to determine whether it qualifies for the funding.

"Basements are currently the most affordable apartment you can find in Brooklyn, unfortunately, and it's a last resort for a lot of the families that live down there," he said.

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