Boro civics oppose legalization of basements apartments

By Juan Soto

The idea to legalize basement apartments in the borough and the rest of the city is not sitting well with several civic and community associations in the borough.

First it was Mayor Bill de Blasio, who resurrected the conversion idea as part of his affordable housing units plan to add 200,000 units in the next 10 years. And recently, Borough President Melinda Katz, who supports the measure, considered the plan to create new zoning districts for basement and cellar apartments.

At a news conference days before she delivered her State of the Borough Address Jan. 22, Katz said that “illegal conversions lack safety.” She said it was necessary for these converted spaces below ground to be safe.

Those who oppose the idea pointed out that fires in these units had proven to be deadly, and that increasing the capacity in single- and two-family districts overburden the schools, the sewage system and garbage collections.

The Bayside Hills Civic Association is one of the associations fighting to prevent widespread basement living from becoming a reality. The group disagrees with new zoning regulations being proposed to legalize these apartments.

“A basement is no place for someone to live,” said Michael Feiner, president of the civic group. “Zoning regulations are in place for a reason.”
Yolanda Gallagher, of the Fresh Meadows Homeoweners Civic Association, said her organization also opposes these conversions.

“It’s just very unhealthy to live in a basement,” Gallagher said. “This is just a bad idea, a very bad idea.”

She noted that basement apartments do not have good ventilation, and most of them have very small windows. “It’s just dangerous to live in them,” she said.

The Queens Civic Congress, an umbrella organization representing more than 100 civic and condo groups in the borough, is against the legalization of basements “due to life safety, fire, congestion, school overcrowding, crime and overuse of city infrastructure, such as water treatment, sewage and transportation facilities.”

The organizations added, “We believe that most small homes with basements were not built for occupancy below grade.”

In a letter sent by Richard Hellenbrecht, the former president of the Queens Civic Congress, to de Blasio, he noted “legalization of illegal residences would encourage creation of new basements, cellar apartments leading to significant overdevelopment.”

But Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst), agrees with Katz’s and de Blasio’s plan to legalize basements and cellars.

“Overcrowding and overdevelopment are a challenge in Corona and the outerboroughs today,” Ferreras said. “If basement apartments are brought up to code, apartments that are already in use in many homes, it would address this shortage of housing while eliminating many threats those unregulated apartments pose to families in our community.”

She added, “Done right, it would be an innovative, sensible solution.”

And Basements Apartments Safe for Everyone, a coalition that favors adding accessory dwellings to the city’s zoning code, said last year that creating a new zoning category would improve an unaffordable housing market.

Researchers said Queens has the most unregulated housing in the city. A report released by BASE in cooperation with the Pratt Center for Community development in 2008 found that South Jamaica and Hollis are in the top-five of the list of neighborhoods with the biggest illegal home market in the city.

Jackson Heights-based Chhaya Community Development Corp., part of BASE, has been working on the issue for the past 10 years.

Its interim executive director, Tenzing Chadotsang, said the group supports legalizing basements in an effort to provide affordable housing “for certain segments of the population and it also gives a source of income to homeowners.”

Chadotsang said the group hopes to work closely with Katz “to determine which are the best areas” to legalize these apartments.