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City to Mandate Evacuations of Basement Apartments in Future Storms After Nearly a Dozen Drown in Such Homes

The basement apartment in Jamaica where a 43-year-old woman and her 22-year-old son died due to flooding Wednesday night (Darren McGee/ Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)

Sept. 3, 2021 By Allie Griffin

The city will mandate evacuations of basement apartments ahead of future storms after nearly a dozen people drowned in such homes Wednesday.

The city will send teams door-to-door to help evacuate New Yorkers living in basements in order to prevent loss of life in future storms, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Friday.

His announcement came two days after the remnants of Hurricane Ida poured record-shattering rainfall on the five boroughs.

The storm took the lives of 13 New York City residents — most of them in basement apartments. Queens suffered the greatest loss of life at 11 people.

Ten of the 11 people who died in Queens drowned in their basement-level homes as rainwater rushed through their front doors — blocking what is often the only exit in such units.

In many cases, the basement apartments filled with water from floor to ceiling in a matter of minutes, turning the homes into death traps before residents could escape.

Queens has a large concentration of basement apartments that are often illegal and are therefore difficult to track — though the citywide number is expected to be in the tens of thousands, according to the New York Times.

Many immigrant and low-income New Yorkers turn to the subterranean apartments as the only affordable option in the city’s limited and increasingly expensive housing stock.

The landlords of the basement units are also often immigrants and/or lower-income New Yorkers themselves. They convert the basements of their homes into rental property for extra income.

The majority of basement apartments across the city are illegal and not up to code — and often dangerous in the case of fires too as most only have one means of egress.

De Blasio said the city will focus on such units in forthcoming storm events to prevent the same tragic loss of life the city experienced Wednesday.

He said the city would expand flood evacuation zones from coastal areas to include below-ground apartments as storms like Ida increasingly have greater and faster rainfall. Ida brought the greatest single-hour rainfall — 3.15 inches — in the city’s history Wednesday, breaking a record set less than two weeks earlier.

“The worst tragedies we saw on Wednesday did not happen anywhere near the shoreline…,” de Blasio said. “Now we understand that there needs to be a different kind of evacuation for folks in basement apartments.”

The city will issue evacuation alerts via text message to targeted neighborhoods where basement apartments are common and send emergency responders door-to-door to evacuate residents.

“This is a very forceful measure,” de Blasio said. “It’s not just saying to people you have to get out of your apartment, it’s going door-to-door with our first responders and other city agencies to get people out.”

Even if a resident is living in an illegal unit or is undocumented, de Blasio said they should never hesitate to call for help in an emergency.

“Anyone in a basement apartment, if you’re in any danger at all, call 911 and never wonder if your documentation status will be asked — it will not be,” he said. “Never wonder if there will be any threat to the place you live in if you call because you’re in danger.”

Many housing activists and elected officials have called on the city to legalize basement apartments to expand the city’s affordable housing stock.

The storm’s fatalities, however, renewed scrutiny over the dangers of converting basements into apartments.

Still, advocates said legalization of such units could help bring the them up to code, make them safer and create a way for the city to track them.

The city recently launched a pilot program in East New York to help homeowners convert their basements into safe, legal apartments by providing them with low or no-interest loans to bring the units up to code. However, the pilot has been hindered by pandemic budget cuts.

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35 Comments

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Ken has a dry basement. Do you?

For all your improvements to the basement, to make it extra “living space” or rental space, whatever. Sofas, beds, flooring, walls between rooms, etc——then the floods come. Next your insurance adjuster comes.
Next, the insurance company DENIES your claim. Why? Most policies do not not cover backup from drains and sewers! Disgusting! Right?
If you own a home with a below street level toilet you should have paid to have a back flow preventer installed. But you did not know that, or perhaps you were just too cheep.

Most below grade (below street level) basement or garage entrances should have (according to NYC building code) a drain that goes into the building’s sewer system (then through your P trap, into the City’s sewer system if you don’t clean your drain it eventually get clogged and the water will eventually overflow INTO your basement. A ten to twenty minute job twice a year.

Also, don’t put your stored boxes on the concrete floor. Make some three or four inch “pallets “….

Stay dry.

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Gardens Watcher

The storm water backed up from insufficient catch basins and overflowed mucky water 1 to 2 feet into some people’s basements, whether or not they had a finished basement or a basement toilet.

This tropical storm had an exceptional amount of rain in a short amount of time. Did you not see the lakes that formed in some of the intersections?

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Tax Man (or person, if you wish)

The City’s Department of Buildings does not know how many basement apartments exist. It may be over 200,000! How many inspectors will be needed to go from door to door to warn and evacuate. This is a deBlasio joke? Yes?

A reason basement apartment apartments are illegal is that they can be very dangerous.

The owners of the buildings where drownings occurred in their illegal basement apartments must be brought up on charges of criminally negligent homocide.

Next, the Department of Finance should determine the market rental value of the illegal basement apartments. Then match that number to the reported rental income reported (most likely zero or at most a few hundred dollars a month) on the property owners income tax returns. The underreported rental income in total will be insanely huge! Try 500,000 times an estimated $10,000 a year in not or underreported rental income equals $50000000000.00 times about 5% tax rate equals $ 250 million dollars in taxes that are not being reported or collected.

No one likes tax cheats. Right?

Then look at the underreported income for from all those two and three family homes. You wouldn’t believe!

Then there is a bunch of underreported income from renting out yard space for letting one’s neighbor park their cars.

These people are not paying their fair share!

Signed
Tax ma. (Or person, if you wish)

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Tony

Stop blaming landlords and making it seem like only poor poc rent basements due to lack of affordable housing. The problem is the city sewer drainage system. I been calling 311 for yrs and nothing gets done to fix the problem on my street. Try calling a plumber or construction company to install a pump or some type of system to prevent sewer back up and they want thousands of dollars. Money that most homeowners do not have.

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Jill

Its back to normal as usual. And most people in nyc are focusing on labor day celebrations and getaways. Enjoy everyone.

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Tina

A lot of markets store merchandise in basements. I am washing whatever i buy and avoiding the meat section.

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Reginald Hinsdale Jr.

This isn’t a basement issue. This is a city sewage system issue. It’s always everyone else’s fault with these communists.

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Kelly

During the pandemic i called the city on my neighbor who rented out his basement to a woman with her kids. I guess the home owner wanted extra cash flow while he sun bathed in Florida. No city official ever showed up. All spring and summer i had to listen to loud music, screaming children and adults, and weekly get loud parties in the backyard. I recalled after hurricane Ida to protect the basement apartment. As neighbors its our duty to protect tenants renting out illegal basements.

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Rick

Why do we still need federal and state funding? Why doesn’t the city have the funding to prepare for climate emergencies. Well, we spent 30 million dollars on a national ad campaign to bring tourists to NYC despite a resurgent pandemic and crime. And we threw 5 concerts in one week, the last huge one cancelled by, what else, the extreme effects from climate change.

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Mixie

Don’t forget the billions we spend on cops, not to mention the hundreds of millions they cost in lawsuits.

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Dave

First Female New York Governor to do nothing about the storm Ida except take a photo op with the failed nyc mayor. No preparation was done ahead of this storm. Failed leadership. Once again identity politics proves a failure.

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Carlos

This clown has such a simplistic brain. He’s planning to go around and advise people that live in basement apartments to evacuate. Who is going to do this? NYPD? Fire? Maybe he should just enforce the law that makes basement apartments illegal. I worked in Corona , Queens and every other house had ten people living like barracks in basements. Wake up!!

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Michelle

I’m just grateful to all our city officials and public servants from police, fire, medical people, first responders, emergency personnel, transit workers and sanitation for the difficult, complex work they are doing to keep things going during one of the most horrible times in our history. Now it’s up to the way-way-too impatient public to start helping – wear the masks, stay away from close crowding and just use some common sense and courtesy. And be patient. It’s sad that it is taking crises of this magnitude to shake up the population about Climate Change and its effect on the economy, on climate migratin, on getting back to “normal,” but we now have to buck up and help.

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Lia

Hopefully they noted which places flooded. They can plot them and send warnings by cellphone the next time there are storm threats. My street was fine. I had those loud phone alerts.

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Frida

I pray that no pets drowned. A lot of landlords keep guard dogs in the basement to scare burglars and many keeps cats in the basement to chase the mice and rats away.

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Natasha

My holiday decorations, winter clothes, washer and dryer, and water heater and boiler are ruined. Water got in through my basement window and i had about four feet of water. We need fast cash now.

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David

Evacuate prior to forthcoming storms?
Are you kidding me?

The Universe is saying illegal apartments are greedy….cut it out!

Just like the doctors who flew a $3M plane into a CT business. GREED.

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Martha

My sisters basement flooded. Her tenants came down during the storm and after to take pictures and videos and then went back upstairs. Hopefully she can use some of their online uploads as proof to get some type of financial help.

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Valerie

What about fixing or upgrading the nyc sewer system so that it can handle water drainage better. My basement floods every time it rains heavy fot long periods for the past 20 years and 311 is of no help. It takes thousands of dollars to try and prevent sewer back up.

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Gardens Watcher

Basement apartments are dangerous and mostly all illegal for a reason. We just experienced one of the biggest reasons why.

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Mac

Just enforce the law. Not enforcing the building codes and zoning laws is destroying this city and endangering lives. I have sent letters regarding illegal apartments to the city since the 80’s (Koch, Dinkins, Giuliani Bloomberg and this clowns administration) and not once has anything been done. If the landlord doesn’t let them in the agents leave and never return. Ridiculous. Remember the deadly fires in Maspeth and Woodside and still no code enforcement.

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Johnny Cakes

Came here to say that, Mac. This has long been a dirty little secret. We only hear from the city when tragedy strikes and then nothing is really done, just talk and business as usual

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Tom

I love it. Many housing activists have called for basement apartments to be legalized. And then what happens when there is a fire in one of them that kills a family of 11. Then you’ll hear Jessica Ramos or Francisco Moya blaming someone.

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Hector Silva

“The city will send teams door-to-door to help evacuate New Yorkers living in basements…” Impossible and ridiculous.

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