By Bob Harris
After rumors circulated recently that Mayor Bill de Blasio was again thinking of legalizing basement apartments, legislators and civic leaders have spoken out against any such proposal.
State Sen. Tony Avella held a meeting in his office with civic leaders to oppose any such plan. Various legislators, such as Councilman Barry Grodenchik, state Sen. Joseph Addabbo Jr. and Chairwoman of Community Board 11 Christine Haider have been quoted in news articles as being opposed to any proposals.
Civic leaders who have spoken against the idea include Queens Civic Congress President Kevin Forrestal, Juniper Park Civic Association President Bob Holden, former President of the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association Ed Wendell, President of the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association Martin Colberg, and former President of the Queens Civic Congress and Bellerose Civic Association member Richard Hellenbrecht.
There are groups that favor making illegal dangerous basement apartments legal. They include include DRUM, the Chhaya Community Development Corp., the Minkwon Center for Community Action and several legislators.
The issue of legalizing basement apartments is in the news again because City Hall has created a multi-agency pilot program to analyze its feasibility in East New York, Brooklyn. Involved are the Department of Buildings, Housing Preservation and Development, Department of City Planning, and the Fire Department.
This activity has galvanized civic groups to oppose the proposals. The Queens Civic Congress has done a study on how surrounding counties deal with this problem.
Civic leaders point out that basement apartments are often fire traps that account for the deaths of several people each year, including firefighters. Homeowners create rooms in a basement where there is no external door to the outside. The only exit is through the house, past the boiler which is what can often catch on fire. Basement rooms have a door locked by a padlock or combination lock. Sometimes renters use hot plates which can over heat and cause a fire. The wiring in many of these houses is 75 or 100 years old, another hazard.
Further, as opposition groups point out, if too many people come into a neighborhood, then the sewers sometimes can’t handle the flow of water, the streets are overcrowded with cars, the schools become overcrowded, and the bus lines can’t handle the ridership.
People often move into a community because the zoning limits the houses to one-family houses which limits the number of people. Many homeowners want nice-looking streets with trees and flowers, bushes and green lawns. You can often tell when a house has extra tenants because the lawns are worn down to the dirt, bushes are dead, cars are parked on lawns or double parked on the streets, trash cans are not put away and trash can be found all over.
Owners who put in illegal apartments often have a friend do the electrical wiring. They do not want to spend a lot of money wiring the house properly, or putting in a smoke alarm, or building a door that serves as an exit. They would probably build the basement apartments cheaply and dangerously if this proposal becomes law.
Regretfully, the DOB has a poor record of enforcing the zoning regulations. There have been instances of bribes to ignore illegal apartments. Owners know this, so they sometimes don’t spend the money to comply with the law.
Yes, the DOB because of the loss of life from fires is now giving out flyers at subway stations and bus stops to alert people to the dangers of illegal basement apartments or illegal basement single rooms. Is this enough?
Some people say the city has 1,000 vacant lots or buildings they have been foreclosed on which can be made into legal buildings to house people. What can be built depends on the zoning of the lot. The civic leaders of Queens will look favorable at legal, logical actions which will maintain their quality of life.