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Illegal basement apartments causing outrage across the city

NEW YORK — Legalizing basement apartments has been talked about as a way to help the housing crisis in the city.

It's a heated debate drawing emotion on both sides of the issue.

Opponents say the apartments are unsafe and will ruin the neighborhood.

Proponents say people rely on them as a means of affordable housing.

A large number of Queens civic leaders gathered at State Sen. Tony Avella's office this afternoon to speak out passionately.

"It's going to ruin the quality of our lives," said Christine Haider, Chair of Community Board 11.

"No basement apartments!" said Beverly McDermott of the Kissena Park Civic Association.

"It's a ridiculously insane proposal," said Kevin Forrestal of the Queens Civic Congress.

According to State Sen. Avella, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who several years ago first talked of legalizing basement apartments, is now revisiting the issue as a solution to the city's affordable housing crisis.

"The Mayor has to be crazy to double the occupancy in a population overnight," said Sen. Avella.

PIX11 spoke with cchaya, CDC, a non-profit housing, advocacy and counseling organization.

"We advocate first, legalizing basement apartments and then we advocate the city in investing, bring those units up to code so that we can ensure they're safe and affordable units. Talk to folks who are renting a basement apartment illegally - the reason is it's their only means or staying in the city," said William Spisak, Director of Programs.

Spisak points out basement apartments already exist so we should legalize the ones that are safe. It would also be a way for the city to collect taxes and for homeworkers to pay the mortgage.

"This is good for both homeowners and for renters. First of all, it provides a much-needed source of income for homeowners at a time and cost of living is rising and wages are stagnating. It's also an opportunity for the city to collect taxes on the source of revenue they are currently not collecting on, even though the apartments are being used."

Spisak believes legalizing basement apartments is one of the simplest solutions to the affordable housing crisis.

"Folks are already using these basement apartments as living spaces so the last thing we want to see is a witch hunt to find which homeowners are using their apartments illegally and which are renting illegally. The city has a moral imperative to make sure the spaces already in use are safe, so we think the best way to do that is to bring it out of the shadows and legalize these apartments. No one is advocating for people to live in unfinished basements or cellars, we want to make sure the city invest money in this project and through that project, provide safe, dignified homes that are affordable," said Spisak.

Currently, there are over 100,000 cellar or basement apartments being rented illegally city wide.

Isabel Marcos and her 5-year-old son live in a basement apartment in Jackson Heights. The working mom is a nurse and says it's tough to make ends meet.

"The basement is really big and it's ample it's really nice me and my son love it here. We don't want to move anytime soon. It's less expensive than a one bedroom or two bedroom apartment, which I cannot afford right now," said Marcos of her apartment, which she has been renting for four years.

She says she has never had a problem and it's comfortable for her and her son.

"This is my first time living in a basement apartment and I would say it is safe. It's finished, I have a kitchen, I haven't had any issues regarding the basement and I feel like because we are in a community where there a lot of people who are not able to afford to be apartment one bedroom or two bedroom apartment this is a good idea to have basement apartments," said Marcos.

She shudders at the thought of the city taking away basement apartments and making them all illegal.

"I would be really stressed out I would have to see what I can do right now I won't be able to afford a one bedroom or two bedroom, I'd probably have to move in with family," said Marcos.

Here is the statement to PIX11 News from Melissa Grace, Deputy Press Secretary, Mayor’s Press Office de Blasio administration:

"Any legalization of basement apartments would be based on their meeting safety codes to protect residents. A multi-agency working group, including HPD, DOB, FDNY, and DCP, is working with Councilman Espinal and multiple community-groups active in East New York to study the feasibility of a basement legalization pilot program in that community."