‘A new legal source of income’: de Blasio moves to legalize basement apartments with pilot program

Photo: Mark Hallum/QNS

After Mayor Bill de Blasio launched the first step toward legalizing certain basement apartments to address the housing need, one Queens lawmaker spoke out against the plan.

Signed into law on Monday, de Blasio said there would be a three-year demonstration program for basements in qualifying homes to be renovated for occupancy starting only with Brooklyn’s Community Board 5.

The proposal to legalize basement apartments in Queens has been unpopular at best. Opponents believe legalizing basement apartments would increase congestion, impact already limited street parking and be unsafe, with many homes not having a mode of egress through the basement. However, administration has considered the concept over the last few years as a means of combating the housing and affordability crisis.

“There are thousands of basement apartments in our city, but too many are illegal and unsafe. This program will help New Yorkers secure safe, affordable homes and give homeowners a new legal source of income,” de Blasio said.

De Blasio announced the pilot program on Monday with community members from East New York where the administration, which will be transferred to a new mayor in 2021, will supervise the launch and decide whether to move forward with expanding across the city.

But Councilman Robert Holden was less than enthusiastic about the possible outcomes of allowing homeowners to rent below-grade space, and was one of the few council members to vote against the legislation which passed with 44 votes.

“I have been fighting against basement apartments for most of my adult life as a civic leader because of the effects they have on districts like ours, and that’s why I voted NO on this program,” Holden said in a statement. “Adding more apartments to one- and two-family homes creates parking nightmares, adds to our already woefully overcrowded school district and strained infrastructure, and sometimes contradicts zoning laws. I see no advantages to this program. It is just another attempt by the current administration to pack in as many people as possible with little thought to quality of life.”

The city Department of Buildings is adjusting its standards to require a minimum ceiling height and window sizes, and there must be adequate emergency exits and fire safety.

“Finding a path to create safe, legal basement apartments that will add to our city’s affordable housing stock while stabilizing homeowners is an idea whose time has come,” HPD Commissioner Maria Torres-Springer said. “We are grateful to Council members Lander, Espinal and Barron for their leadership on this issue and our partner city agencies for helping us to advance this innovative pilot program that promises to unlock more safe, quality housing opportunities.”

The program will also fund community organizations who can help homeowners secure loans to complete renovations and meet city standards to better navigate the approval process through the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Up to $11.7 million was invested in the pilot program by the city for residents to secure low interest loans.