How to Solve NYC’s Affordable Housing Crisis? Legalize Basement Units

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“Nearly 40% of the new housing created from 1990 to 2005 were illegal apartments. Many of them are in basements or cellars. These units exist because there isn’t enough affordable housing in NYC.” -Seema Agnani, Executive Director, Chhaya Community Development Corporation in “Bringing Basements To Code” 

For years, Chhaya, a community-based non-profit in Jackson Heights, Queens, has been working on a campaign to legalize basement apartments as a means of creating more affordable housing. According to a 2008 study conducted by Chhaya and CHPC, there are approximately 10,000 illegal dwelling units in New York City, many of which could be easily converted into legal apartments.  More often than not, the tenants in these units are recent immigrants, in search of available affordable housing, which we all know is hard to come by.

Chhaya and ally organizations are working to legalize basement units, and bring them into the scope of regulation that would mutually benefit tenants, landlords, neighborhoods, and the city. Through regulation, tenants’ living conditions would not only improve, but they would receive protections against evictions (benefiting the landlord, as well.) In addition, the city will be able to allocate resources specifically for maintaining units, while simultaneously increasing tax revenues from these properties.

Chhaya has put forth a proposal to create an Accessory Dwelling Unit code, which would legalize many illegal basement units while maintaining the current zoning regulations. Much of Queens, for instance, is zoned for single family housing, and adding this code would create new affordable housing units without changing the character of the neighborhood.

Legalizing basement apartments has emerged as a major component of mayoral candidate Bill De Blasio’s plan for affordable housing.  In a press release, the current Public Advocate says of so-called “granny flats”: “As mayor, I will bring them into the regulated housing system, ensure they meet legal standards for safety, and work to bring them under rent-regulation, so their tenants will have the same basic protections as New Yorkers in traditional apartments.”

At UHAB, we see illegal units all the time, and there’s currently no good answer for the tenants who live in them.  When buildings are in foreclosure and change ownership, for example, we are unable to guarantee that those tenants won’t be evicted.  Illegal units put tenants at risk of displacement and also at higher risk of living in poor conditions.

To learn more about Chhaya’s campaign, and how to get involved, visit their website here.

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