How a Bronx Basement Highlights One of New York City’s Biggest Problems

When Mildred Velez was looking for her first home in 1965, she settled in a humble place in the Bronx because it had a basement for her mother-in-law. Years later, after her mother-in-law passed away, Ms. Velez rented the unit to a disabled woman and then to a retired law enforcement officer.

The spacious apartment—with multiple windows and three ways in and out, including a backyard—felt like an ideal space for anyone looking for an affordable home in one of the country’s most expensive cities.

But one day in 2018, a city inspector showed up at Ms. Velez’s front door and brought some startling news: City ordinances banned anyone from living in the basement. She broke the law.

The violations have plunged Ms Velez, 90 – who still rents out her basement – ​​into a years-long quagmire of fines and bureaucracy. It has also made her an emblem of one of New York’s most pressing housing problems: how to deal with the tens of thousands of illegal basement dwellings that remain a persistent feature of the city’s housing stock.

Those issues became apparent in September, when the remains of Hurricane Ida killed 11 people in basement homes, most of them illegally, sparking calls for better ways to legalize and regulate the homes.

There is no reliable data on basements and basements being rented out illegally in all of New York City. Some can pose a deadly threat to the people who live in them – as exemplified by the deaths during Ida, where people drowned and had no way to escape because there weren’t enough exits. But others may only be illegal because they come in contact with a maze of technical and possibly outdated city rules.

The houses are not only important sources of income for working-class or lower-income New Yorkers like Ms. Velez. They are also crucial to address the shortage of affordable housing in the city.

Still, Ms Velez’s case shows how challenging it can be, under existing legislation, to find a solution.

Her violations, which stemmed from an anonymous complaint, appear to be based on paperwork filed more than 50 years ago that misclassified the unit as a basement. Basements are underground units where at least half of the unit is below curb level and can never be legally rented out. But Ms. Velez’s unit is only a fraction of a foot below the curb.

Getting the paperwork in order, according to an estimate provided to Ms. Velez, would require at least $6,500 for an architect and thousands more in engineering and other work, which Ms. Velez said she cannot afford. Even if she could, she probably wouldn’t meet other basement requirements, such as ample parking.

Ms. Velez said her only other income is Social Security, and she needs the basement rental income — she charges $800 a month — to support herself. So she continues to collect fines for what she claims has been a livable apartment for decades. City records show she was charged $18,000 in fines as of Oct. 6.

“If it hadn’t worked in 52 years, don’t you think something would have gone wrong?” she said. “I’m not asking them to give me anything. I’m just asking them to give me some peace of mind.”

But the city’s Buildings Department insists that Ms. Velez should stop renting the basement or get the permits to amend her paperwork and legalize the apartment. Those permits would be necessary for the city to ensure that qualified people had completed the construction work on the unit and that it was a safe place to live.

Andrew Rudansky, a spokesperson for the agency, said Ms. Velez has “repeatedly received detailed instructions” from the department “about correcting the infringing conditions in her basement.”

“To date, the owner has not taken the necessary steps to correct the violations,” he said.

Jessica Katz, executive director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, a not-for-profit housing group, said Ms. Velez was “entangled in this web of all the regulation surrounding basements.”

Ms. Katz has tried to help Ms. Velez find a solution, but she said her situation demonstrates the need to ease city requirements for some homes and provide financial support for legalization.

“We don’t provide a toolkit for homeowners to know and understand their obligations, and the tools and resources to meet those obligations,” she said.

There are some attempts to address these issues. A bill in the state legislature would allow basements to bypass some cumbersome regulations, including by eliminating parking requirements, and would instruct the state to find a way to help pay for renovations.

Ms. Velez’s case does not reflect all the problems with illegal basement and basement housing. Some of the apartments where people died in Ida, for example, had only one entrance or one exit.

Yet city officials have struggled with the problem for decades: The number of low-income New Yorkers far outstrips the number of affordable homes, leading many to seek refuge in cheaper basements. And for many lower-income or older New Yorkers, basements are a vital source of income.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who estimates there are at least 50,000 illegal units, had promised to find a way to legalize them. But the city’s only serious attempt, a pilot program in Brooklyn, has largely failed amid pandemic-related budget cuts, and Mr. De Blasio last month expressed skepticism that a realistic solution was possible.

Ms. Velez, who used to rent an apartment in another part of the Bronx, said she would never have moved to Throgs Neck with her husband if the basement hadn’t been there. And she remains adamant that for decades there’s been no reason to believe it’s not a safe place to live.

The first tenant in the mid-1990s after her mother-in-law died was a disabled woman who relied on Section 8 housing vouchers, she said. Federal officials had inspected the basement and found it an acceptable home, Ms. Velez said.

The current tenant, who has lived in the apartment since 2005, declined to speak officially because he is a retired law enforcement officer who said he feared reprisals from criminals he once detained.

But he said he had no problems with Ms. Velez or the apartment, other than a few inches of water that flooded the basement during Ida. He said he first heard about the basement from Mrs. Velez’s neighbors across the street, who looked after his brother’s children, and thought it would be affordable and convenient.

He has become very close to Mrs. Velez and plays dominoes with her every Saturday. He said he has considered moving because of the city’s problems, but the basement is comfortable and Ms. Velez has become dependent on each other.

Ms. Velez, who no longer has any family nearby, agrees that the living situation was harmonious. The rent payments are crucial, but the tenant also helps her with chores and errands.

“My tenant downstairs is like having a son downstairs,” she said.

But the unpaid fines could lead to a lien on her property, and Ms. Velez is feeling stressed by the fear of losing her home.

Every 90 days, she receives a letter reminding her that she has not addressed the violations as a result of the 2018 complaint. And last month, another complaint was made against her anonymously.

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