State assembly looks for ways to legalize and improve ‘unsafe’ basement apartments

NEW YORK (PIX11) — Tens of thousands of families across New York City live in basements or cellars apartments — and most of them are not legal, according to city and state regulations.

The city’s Department of Buildings said they are dangerous living conditions and violate several codes. But, struggling families — including many immigrant families — told PIX11 News they don’t have a choice.

Ashmid Ali Shaw, 60, is a construction worker who lives in a basement in Jamaica, Queens. He said rent in upper-level apartments is too expensive, especially once you factor in utilities.

He has a doorway entry, and access to several windows in case of an emergency — but it’s still considered illegal.

New York Assemblyman Harvey Epstein championed a bill that would create a safe pathway to legalize basements and cellars apartments.

“We’ve seen how unsafe it has been,” he said.

Eleven New Yorkers died in basement apartments during flooding caused by Hurricane Ida.

Still, the bill didn’t get passed during the last legislative session earlier this month.

“We have a huge housing crisis,” said Rebekah Morris.

Morris runs the Basement Apartments Safe for Everyone Campaign and helped push for a pilot program in the East New York-Cypress Hills area of Brooklyn in 2019. That program allowed homeowners to apply for legal conversions, but funding was pulled during the pandemic.

According to Pratt Center for Community Development, seniors, essential workers, immigrants and low-income minority families are the ones predominantly living in basements and illegally converted units. Neighborhoods in Queens have the most reported occupied housing underground.

The Department of Buildings told PIX11 News that illegally converted living spaces that are not up to code can be unsafe for building occupants, neighbors and first responders. Unlicensed contractors are often used to install gas and electrical systems that aren’t always up to code, they added.

According to the agency, every year they get over 10,000 complaints.

Ashmid said his basement was constructed safely. And, he added, for many immigrants like him, it’s the only option.

“A lot of people can’t afford it, so we have no choice,” he said.

Epstein and activists are hoping to get the bill that would allow a safe pathway to legalize basements passed at the next session in January.