On a quiet, residential block in Woodside, kids scampered across the sidewalk on a recent afternoon, a bouncy poodle yelped for attention and neighbors mingled on the street corners.
The area was inundated with flood water during the remnants of Hurricane Ida last fall, though visible signs of the damage the storm caused are long gone.
Nancy Valero moved into a basement unit in the area with her family earlier this year. The apartment was renovated, had new appliances and was affordable. But something caught her attention: All of the electrical outlets were placed toward the ceiling, rather than the floor.
After she and her family moved in they soon found out why. Flood waters from Ida had inundated the apartment, forcing out the previous tenants who lost everything. Valero said she’s been on edge ever since.
“Sooner or later it’s going to happen,” she said in Spanish. “What are we going to do?”
It’s been more than nine months since historic rainfall during Ida flooded tens of thousands of homes and killed 11 residents of basement apartments in Queens. The dangers faced by residents of the unregulated units became undeniably apparent, and city and state leaders promised urgent action.
But as the months have ticked by and with another hurricane season — predicted to be stormier than usual — already underway, calls for change have given way to bureaucratic delays and few if any tangible improvements for basement-dwelling residents.
“It really felt like there was going to be a sea change when Ida hit,” said Rebekah Morris, with the Pratt Center for Community Development, which has been pushing the city to make basement apartments safer for more than a decade. “I'm just completely disappointed at how quickly people seem to forget and move on.”
In Ida’s wake, Mayor Bill de Blasio released a plan with a series of strategies to avoid the calamity the city saw during Ida. His administration then put out two subsequent progress reports on the plan, but there’s been no additional reporting since Mayor Eric Adams took office.
A piece of state legislation that would have enabled the city to sidestep certain state zoning rules for buildings with multiple dwellings, and thus allow it to move towards legalizing basement apartments, died on the vine at the close of the legislative session.
Roughly 100,000 New Yorkers live in 50,000 unregulated basement apartments, the city estimates. Advocates for basement apartment legalization see it as a way to bring existing dwellings up to residential code by assuring they have proper exits and enough light and air to be safe. They aim to craft a process similar to how the city brought unpermitted loft apartments in former industrial spaces up to residential code through the 1982 Loft Law.
Backers of basement legalization argue that rather than waiting for the state before taking any further action, the city could start devising a plan right away to be ready to roll out if the state law changes. Planning for that type of process will take months and there’s already $85 million in state funding allotted that could help defray the costs of such a measure, according to State Assemblymember Harvey Epstein, a proponent of basement legalization who sponsored the state bill.
“We're talking about hundreds of thousands of potential units coming online that could be affordable, safe for the people who are living there now and safe for the first responders who need to go in,” Epstein said. “We're much closer than we've ever been to be able to do this.”
While Adams supports legalization of basement apartments, the city has given no indication it will craft a plan to bring units up to code until there’s a change in state law.
“We need to bring these units out of the shadows so we can ensure the same protections for them as every other legal apartment in New York City,” said mayoral spokesperson Charles Lutvak said. “The mayor will not stop pushing for that legislation until it becomes law.”
Flash-flooding is not the only risk basement tenants face. The units can also be fire traps — difficult to escape from, and hard to access for first responders, who may not even know to look for tenants there. A seven-year-old boy died in an unregulated basement apartment last year and another Queens man was killed in April. Last month brought another tragedy: Salima and Balo Persaud and their 22-year-old son Devon were killed in an unregulated basement apartment in Richmond Hill
“We’re all taking it very hard,” said Abid Ally, Salima’s 50-year-old cousin who was raising money for the funeral arrangements with a GoFundMe campaign. Salima worked at JFK airport and was the family’s breadwinner, Ally said — the basement unit was what they could afford.
“New York City has a housing shortage,” he said. “There should be some sort of concessions in legalizing basements.”
Buried within Adams' housing plan released last month, was the first signal of how he plans to handle the residents and owners of flood-prone homes and vulnerable basement tenants.
“Improving safety for basement occupants, especially during flooding events, is a top priority for the Adams administration,” the plan says on page 81 of the 94-page report.
The plan says the city will keep advocating for changes to the state law that would allow the city more leeway to legalize basement dwellings. It promises to “increase awareness” among homeowners and tenants in flood-prone areas about existing resources available, rather than dedicating new funding streams for them, and it alludes to buyouts for vulnerable residents, saying the city will continue to work with federal partners towards that end. The city’s Office of Emergency Management has already activated a more targeted warning system during flash flood conditions.
But advocates say the latest outline is more lip service than an actual timeline with deliverable goals that will make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.
This is a plan to have a plan, and there isn’t time for that
“This is a plan to have a plan and there isn’t time for that,” said Jose Miranda, with the Chhaya Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit based in Southeast Queens that advocates for basement apartment legalization among other things. “We’re in hurricane season and we need immediate action and we need an immediate plan to move forward.”
A more optimistic take came from Amit Shivprasad, the son of owners of a one-family home in Hollis, Queens where two basement tenants were killed in flooding. The block, built atop a former pond, has flooded for decades, Gothamist reported. Shivprasad hopes what Adams has outlined for basement apartments is just the start of a more concrete vision with next steps he and his neighbors see on the ground.
“I have a little faith in this group, that they're gonna do something. But then that's only like a 5% faith right now,” he said. “I'm more terrified than I've ever been when it comes to rainfall. I have three weather apps on my phone.”
Adams’ plan also mentions working with Los Deliveristas, the network of bicycle delivery workers subcontracted by app companies like GrubHub. The city would tap into the group’s networks to alert officials about on-the-ground flooding conditions.
Hildalyn Colon-Hernandez said she and a group of Deliveristas had met with the city’s Office of Emergency Management to start talks, which included measures to keep them safe during flash-flooding as well.
“Credit to this administration, they took action,” she said “[Is it] perfect? No. [Are] we gonna agree a thousand percent of everything? No. Is it gonna be enough? We don't know, but at least it's a process to start the conversation, create awareness and start getting concrete things that we can do.”
Back in Woodside, though, little has changed. Nancy Valero and her family were adjusting to their basement apartment, though it was darker and more cramped than the house they’d moved from on Staten Island. They found the apartment the same way the prior tenants, the Gomez family had a decade earlier, circling the neighborhood on foot, looking for “For Rent” signs.
During Ida, the Gomez family lost most of their worldly possessions and narrowly escaped with their lives. The family has since made it to higher ground, and is living in the apartment above the basement. Their landlord wasted no time renovating the unregulated basement apartment, readying it for new tenants. The recent renovation and brand new appliances were appealing to Valero, though she didn’t connect the dots as to why everything was new, until the Gomez family above told her about their watery escape. Rainwaters have already filtered in through the window once during a recent storm.
“We’ll have to go to sleep with life jackets or we’ll wake up swimming,” Valero said, chuckling quietly. She paused, her tone shifting as she added, “It scares us.”