Basement apartments in Queens should be legalized

By Prem Calvin Prashad

A pillar of the mayor’s affordable housing plan is the legalization of some basement apartments. As Queens residents, we need to face reality and recognize that not only is the renting of basements widespread, it is necessary for many people to remain in their homes in the current economy.

Housing advocates, including the Base Apartments Safe for Everyone coalition, champion a comprehensive set of regulations and benefits that will allow a select number of basements that meet certain safety and occupancy regulations to be designated as alternate dwelling units.

There is an ADU code with a compliance unit as well as a mechanism to assist current basement apartments to comply with the code. About a third of current illegal apartments can be made legal, according to housing advocates. This is not a blanket approval of all basement apartments.

The conversation needs to focus not on potential basement apartments, but on the thousands of units that already exist in Queens. There will always be basement apartments and we will never be able to marshal the resources to ban all these units.

With legalization, we ensure first responders are protected in the event of an emergency by including the units in building plans. Legalization allows for a more accurate picture of a neighborhood’s need for city services. Fears about the impact of these units need to consider that due to the current preponderance of these apartments, city resources are already taxed and will continue to be, with or without legalization.

An ADU does not change the zoning designation of an area and serves as an auxiliary unit in a larger dwelling. This preserves historic properties and prevents unsustainable development. ADUs typically serve the elderly, students and other small households that require accommodations smaller or cheaper than a typical apartment.

ADU certification programs exist in several major U.S. cities, as well as 17 towns on Long Island, where they serve as a foreclosure prevention program for elderly homeowners.

This is preferable to ham-fisted, one-to-two family conversions that scar historic properties in Queens. In having high turnover rates of homeowners in neighborhoods and an increasing number of vacant properties, neighborhoods have lost cohesion and political clout. Property speculation, rather than ownership, now drives the purchase of many Queens homes.

While there are concerns legalization will spike the number of conversions, the majority of landlords have never waited for the government’s approval to make conversions. Most have already taken a calculated risk in renting out basements. In moving forward with legalization, this does not substantially alter the supply of these apartments but adds oversight over those that exist.

Indeed, there are exploitative basement units that will never qualify for ADU designation. These units will remain subject to the city Housing Department’s inspection and enforcement, already overburdened with the number of properties with minor issues. By legalizing basement apartments that are largely safe, we free city resources to deal with the worst landlords.

When waiters, retail workers and others in the service industry cannot afford to live in the city, the cost of services will increase dramatically. The high cost of housing inevitably affects the cost of labor, especially if low-wage earners are forced to commute from outside the city to fill low-wage or part-time work.

There is a global consensus that urban density is the best way to ensure effective land use and provide quantifiable demand for infrastructure upgrades. Queens is the only borough that maintains a semblance of urban sprawl. Sprawl is now an indictment of cost-ineffective and unsustainable planning.

If there is any hope for necessary infrastructure improvements, including new subway and rail lines, then we need to recognize that density is necessary to make these projects real.

Basement apartments exist with or without legalization. We can remain in denial of market forces, but the cost of unaffordable housing creeps into all economic sectors. It makes prices higher, strains social benefit networks and shrinks consumer spending.

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