Movement to Legalize Some Basement Rental Units

A recent article in Crain’s looked into efforts to change city regulations that might legalize as many as 35,000 basement rental units. The article points out that many of these basement units — those with windows but that are mostly underground — are now rented illegally. Other cities such as Santa Cruz, Ca and Orlando, Fl have changed their zoning rules to legalize more of these kinds of units. Here in New York, the Immigrant Housing Collaborative, a city coalition of housing groups, has pushed the concept and Manhattan Borough president Scott Stringer has endorsed the idea. According to the article, his office released a report (see pg. 26) in December that, “predicted that such changes would bring these dwellings ‘out of the shadows.’ Doing so, the report concluded, would add tens of thousands of affordable units to the city’s legal housing stock and would spur economic growth by accommodating more young workers.” Others were critical, pointing out that legalizing illegally rented units does not actually add any housing and fire department officials were concerned that any changes take safety into account. Stringer’s report says that there are 100,000 of these units and about 35 percent of them could be made legal with small modifications existing regulations. Stringer’s report doesn’t identify exactly what changed he’d suggest, but he indicates that “sufficient light and air” would be part of the proposed change. What do you think? Should the city loosen up the rules on basement rental units? Would that change the value of homes that suddenly find themselves sitting on another legal rental unit?

Illegal Solution for More Housing? [Crain’s]

Photo by Alex Siu for Property Shark

21 Comment

  • love the comment about sufficient light and air, yet all the new buildings being built now a days, the kitchens and bathrooms never ever even have windows. that is why the kitchens are open to the living room, so they are not required to have a window.

    wasn’t that a law from the tenement act back in 1900 that all rooms must have light and ventilation. I cant think of any other room more than a bathroom that needs a freaking window in it.

  • The photograph looks like the eastern end of one of the Bedford–Rogers blocks in Lefferts Manor. If so, basement apartments, and apartments in general, are illegal because of zoning (R2) and deed covenants.

  • An awful lot of legal “English basement” type apartments were flooded out during Sandy. Maybe, rather than legalizing what are really cellar (more than half below grade), not basement, apartments we should look into prohibiting the building of more apartments that are built on grade, without a cellar underneath.

  • As long as they are safe, they should be legalized. Any shortcomings would be reflected in a lower price. NYC regulates private property way too much.

    • Totally agree. As long as it’s safe, 2 means of egress, etc then a renter should be able to decide for himself if he wants to live there or not, and the market would determine the price based on all the other factors – location, size, quality, etc, not just whether it was partially underground. It’s ridiculous the way NYC regulates private property. I actually like a bedroom with no windows – dark, cool, sleep like a baby – had one of those years ago in my college days in a different state where not having a built-in closet made something “not” a bedroom, not not having a window. A basement apartment typically has much cheaper utilities since heating and cooling are minimal, usually quieter, no multiple stairwells to walk up every day. Sometimes it seems all these city regulations exist in our modern times just to justify preserving jobs at the DOB and/or specific tradesmen and architects – no offense to the tradesmen and architects.

      • Right, cellars are good enough for THOSE people. They should have the freedom to decide if they want to rent there or not; just as they should have the freedom to work for less than the minimum wage. Maybe we could learn to make all that mold a bit less toxic (so as not to interfere with productivity) and convert it to food for THOSE people.

        • WTF are you talking about? “Those people”? I made no mention of “those people” so mind your own business or STFU. I mentioned people should have the right to rent whatever the heck they want to rent or not as long as it’s safe, and the city should have no prohibitions based on a time when there was no electricity (light) or ventilation (chamber pots, cholera, etc). Those are why those laws were passed. Outside of a handful of people, I know of no-one around here tosses their chamber pots into the street – possibly a few on Bedford Ave. I guess you assume every basement has mold or maybe is a dungeon with just dirt floors and rock walls, and I assume you think people force tho”those people” to live there under duress or possibly gunpoint? My basement is dry, cool, modern, clean, and mold free – a wonderful den and office which is how I use it. Mind you I have no intention of renting any part of my house to anyone. But I resent your implications – I made no such statement about whoever the hell you are calling “those people”. I merely said people should be able to rent anything they want to rent and owners should not be limited for perfectly habitable space made inhabitable by century old laws made for a different era. Perhaps you should get out in other parts of the country and see what other folks are living in (whether buying or renting) and then come back and denigrate people for living however they choose to live. Meanwhile, ranting about turning mold into food, minimum wage, etc makes you look idiotic. This was just a discussion about whether a perfectly livable space with plenty of light, heat, and safety could be eventually rentable.

  • Some basement apartments are very nice, the ones in houses where the dining room was originally in that level. Others are less nice, generally built in houses where the dining room was upstairs and the basement was utilitarian space. But the worst of all are the cellar spaces, which unethical realtors describe as “basement” which are really dank tombs.

    • Do you mean in houses where the kitchen was located in what we now call the basement?

      • I’m pretty sure that’s what he means–those are generally houses with cellars below the “basements”.

      • the traditional mid-nineteenth century Brooklyn row house had double parlors on the first floor and the dining room and kitchen in the basement. The dining room always faced the front. In these houses, the basement level is very nice with beautiful large fire places and fancy moldings. Later on, with the advent of more reliable artificial light, the first floor became three rooms deep and the basement was relegated to kitchen and servants rooms.
        Beneath the basement was the cellar where the coal was stored. Coal was delivered through a slot in the front areaway so as not to soil the house. Cellars had dirt floors and were never remotely livable spaces.

        • Thank you, Minard. I have visited friends in “English Basement” apartments that were quite nice, especially the front room, but never realized that the rooms with street-facing windows were once dining rooms. I always assumed that the basement was reserved for the kitchen and, possibly, a room for the cook. Perhaps I was confusing mid-nineteenth century row houses with earlier row houses I have seen where the basement levels did not seem suitable for a dining room.

          • you are very welcome. I know that your preference is to live entirely on the parlor floor, like lascivious characters in French novels…..but I’m not judging.

          • “The burden of my flesh” keeps me on the parlor floor, but everyone is too polite to state the obvious: that I am too fat to go upstairs. Dear Edith, always putting the shamefully obvious in the best possible light. My guests see the massive bed in what should be the drawing room and remember to say in hushed and artificially shocked tones: “this is how women with lovers lived in the wicked old societies.” However intrepid and amorous I may be, the old saying still applies: “If wishes were horses, I’m still too fat to ride.”

  • Seems like this would benefit much of the new construction that has legal basement recreation/ storage rooms but does not allow for kitchens, full baths and bedrooms.

  • As per Will and Ari. As long as they are “safe” 2 modes of egress etc.

    However – cases of flooding, mold, carbon monoxide etc may multiply.

    It’s an open secret that many basements in blue-collar, immigrant Queens, Flatbush etc. are already being rented. The irony is – with legality, the current tenants will probably be displaced by hipsters, especially here in Brooklyn.

    It’s a stinging indictment of Bloomberg’s 13 year reign of leading and feeding the city’s luxury housing boom and affordable housing is relegated to anemic, ad hoc solutions like this.

  • I bought my 3 family house with an unfinished cellar and renovated it to become my master bedroom suite. The downstairs has front and back entrances, 7.5″ ceiling and two windows on the front and two on the back that run along the top THIRD of the wall. Of course it’s not currently legal to rent it (i have no intention to) but its even illegal to have a bathroom in it. It would make a perfectly handsome little 900 sq foot apartment and there is absolutely no logical reason – neither for safety – nor that it is “dank” (its not. In fact it’s the warmest driest part of the house.) It would be great for my retirement plan if they changed the law.

  • Just another ploy for the current mayor to raise property taxes. Lets just turn all brooklyn brownstones into hotels motels and hostels. We don’t need any workers families or seniors living here