by Christina Brown, Alicia French, Jesse Hirakawa, Rocket Osborne, and Alejandra Zapata
On November 4, the 2021 nycoba|NOMA & AIANY Civic Leadership Program (CLP) presented their first public event of the year, “What’s Next for Basement Apartments after Hurricane Ida?”, organized by Christina Brown, Alicia French, Jesse Hirakawa, Rocket Osborne, and Alejandra Zapata. The program focused on the legalization of basement units, exploring issues of climate resilience, the housing crisis, life safety, and local and state policy improvement.
Illegal basement apartments make up nearly 40% of the new housing created from 1990 to 2005, a rise that is partially due to the lack of affordable housing options in the city. According to the city, this results in roughly 100,000 New Yorkers living in 50,000 or more illegal basement apartments. Despite its importance, this vital housing stock often does not comply with current building codes, can pose serious health and safety risks, and often lacks proper means of egress during emergencies such as fire or flooding. Extreme weather events, such as 2021’s Hurricane Ida, only further exacerbate the safety issues of basement dwellings, especially as climate change disproportionately affects the most vulnerable in our communities.
In response to the vulnerability of NYC’s basement units, the city has launched programs like the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s Basement Apartment Conversion Pilot Program (BACPP), which started in East New York in 2019. Such programs are attempting to find ways to make basement apartments safe and legal so that crucial housing isn’t lost during the current crisis. Despite these programs, challenges remain, including how to continue ongoing program efforts despite budget cuts during the pandemic, the implementation of solutions to extreme weather events, and the re-evaluation of existing zoning and code policies to allow for larger basement conversion eligibility while preserving safety standards for the occupants.
The program began with a keynote presentation by Kate Leitch, a researcher and senior analyst at the Citizens Housing and Planning Council (CHPC), where much of her work is focused on the intersection of building codes and housing policy objectives. Leitch discussed the myriad ways in which CHPC works to improve the safety, habitability, and quantity of affordable housing in NYC, from advocating for Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) legalization via Senate Bill S4547 to consulting on the BACPP. Leitch also highlighted current barriers in regulatory frameworks that prevent basement conversion approvals and provided an overview of proposed strategies for moving forward with legalization.
Following the keynote, Deborah Gans, founder and Principal at Gans and Company; Mark Ginsberg, founding partner at Curtis + Ginsberg Architects; Laura Heim, founder and principal at Laura Heim Architect; and Xiomara Pedraza, Chief of Staff of Preservation at the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development, discussed their experiences working on basement housing in NYC, and shared their outlook for the future.
Takeaways ranged from the potential future of the basement pilot program to the financial, policy, and architectural possibilities of basement conversions, but all speakers underscored the importance of exploring ways to support home owners in making their basement apartments safe and liveable. Furthermore, speakers stressed the potential for the city to explore the tapping into various funding sources, such as federal funding for inland and coastal resiliency, to support basement conversions as part of neighborhood-wide flood mitigation strategies.
A key consideration for homeowners and developers is the environmental impact of construction and the comparative costs of building new affordable housing versus renovating existing basement units. The potential cost savings from using less material in developing existing land can allow for more units to be renovated when compared to initiating new construction. The speakers also acknowledged additional challenges of basement conversion—such as renovation costs, defining legal basement heights, and policy/zoning changes.
With these considerations in mind, the group ended wondered what a future citywide basement pilot program would look like. What policies and legislations would need to be taken on by the next mayoral administration to continue the legalization program? What state partnerships would be needed in order to expedite program expansion before the next major weather event?
Special thanks to:
Kate Leitch, Citizens Housing and Planning Council (CHPC)
Deborah Gans, Gans and Company
Mark Ginsberg, Curtis + Ginsberg Architects
Laura Heim, Laura Heim Architect
Xiomara Pedraza, NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development
Corey Arena, CLP Advisor
Vera Voropaeva, CLP Advisor
Betsy Daniel, CLP Advisor
Talisha Sainvil, CLP Advisor
Kavitha Mathew, AIA New York
Andrea Kahn, designCONTENT