Janaki Rai, an 18-year-old high school student in Queens, has been living in a basement apartment for 5 years.
She’s one of over 100,000 New Yorkers who call their cellar-style basement home, despite them being deemed illegal by the city’s Department of Buildings.
She says she lives in constant fear of the police knocking on her door and can’t afford the rising costs of rent in New York City.
“We need safety,” said Rai, speaking through a translator.
Last week, she stood alongside elected officials in Flushing’s Diversity Plaza, where lawmakers stated that the time is now to legalize basement apartments in New York City.
Legislation introduced by Assemblymember Harvey Epstein and State Senator Brian Kavanagh would pave the way for the city to enact local laws pertaining to legalizing basement apartments.
The bill, S8783/A9802, would allow for a program to be established to help bring existing basement apartments up to state safety code, without having to comply with laws that have long banned the formalization of the basement units.
Officials say that basement apartments often do not contain safety features, including proper egress, electrical systems or ventilation.
“We started working on basement apartments 15 years ago,” Assemblyman Epstein said at the rally held at Diversity Plaza. “Unfortunately, the struggles of New Yorkers haven’t changed much. We have an opportunity here.”
Epstein, the chair of the Assembly subcommittee on Retention of Homeownership, and Kavanagh, the chair of the Senate Committee on Housing, Construction and Community Development, said the crisis of basement apartments became more apparent last September when 11 New Yorkers lost their lives due to Hurricane Ida.
Epstein and Kavangh were joined by New York City Chief Housing Officer Jessica Katz, City Comptroller Brad Lander, Councilman Shekar Krishnan, community housing advocates Chhaya Community Development Corporation, Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, and members of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM).
Rai, a member of DRUM for four years, was praised for her courage to speak up about her experiences living in a basement apartment.
CHHAYA Executive Director Annetta Seecharran says the issue of legalizing basement apartments has long been ignored by city and state officials, calling it a “thorny” issue that leaves thousands of tenants vulnerable to sudden eviction, which could lead to homelessness.
“We cannot allow another Ida situation to happen,” Seecharran said. “It’s time to finally fix this problem. The city and state must work together to address this issue, and we feel that the moment is now.”
The legislation comes with the support of Mayor Eric Adams, and a coalition of housing advocacy groups throughout the city, including AARP New York, the BASE Campaign, Chhaya CDC, Citizens Housing & Planning Council, Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, Pratt Center for Community Development, the Center for NYC Neighborhoods, Housing Justice for All, and the Regional Plan Association.
The bill would specifically allow cities in the state of New York with a population of one million people or more (there’s only one) to create an amnesty program for existing basement units.
The legislation defines an “accessory dwelling unit” as an attached or detached residential dwelling unit that provides complete independent living for one or more people, and located on the same lot as a single-family or multi-family dwelling as a proposed or existing primary residence. The unit must also contain permanent provisions for living, sleeping, eating, cooking, bathing and washing, and sanitation.
The bill currently sits in the State Senate’s Judiciary Committee, with just a little under a month left in the legislative session, which ends Tuesday, June 2.
“It’s long past time we legalize Accessory Dwelling Units to protect residents from deadly disasters and contribute to solving the affordable housing crisis,” Comptroller Brad Lander said. “This critical bill will protect 100,000 vulnerable New Yorkers living in basement apartments and ensure the tragedies of Hurricane Ida are not repeated.”