At least 12 New Yorkers – including a two-year-old boy – died in their apartments as flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Ida rushed into their homes on 1 September.
At least five of those properties were illegally converted basement and cellar-level apartments, New York City’s Department of Buildings confirmed to The Independent.
The city received reports of flood-related damage at more than 1,100 properties across the city, according to the agency.
“Our team is tirelessly conducting inspections at over a thousand properties across the five boroughs in the aftermath of Wednesday’s storm,” building commissioner Melanie E La Rocca said in a statement. “We’ll continue doing everything we can to keep New Yorkers safe in their residences.”
The properties in Brooklyn and Queens include the illegal conversions of three cellar levels into one, two and four apartments, and the illegal conversion of a basement into an apartment, according to the agency.
Another basement-level apartment in Queens was a legal unit, the agency said.
Illegal conversions include altering a building into apartments without permits or city approval and often do not include emergency exits, illegal gas and electrical work and lack of ventilation and light.
The city considers a basement as a room with more than 50 per cent of floor height above grade, while a cellar has more than half of the floor height below grade.
As of this month, the city has collected 8,072 complaints for suspected illegal apartment conversations.
In 2020, the city collected more than 11,700, and more than 16,700 in 2019.
New York Attorney General Letitia James has called on the city to provide emergency housing vouchers to all New Yorkers living in unregulated apartments following Wednesday’s floods.
“We know that New York’s housing crisis has gone too far when tenants have to risk their lives just to have a roof over their heads,” she said in a statement on 3 September. “Extreme rainfall and other severe weather events are now the rule, not the exception, in New York. In the face of that risk, it is our duty to move these New Yorkers out of harm’s way by offering them safer, regulated housing.”
She added: “Overcoming the twin threats of climate change and a housing crisis will not be simple, but we must ensure measures are in place to protect our neighbours and prevent a future catastrophe.”
More than 100,000 New Yorkers live in illegally converted apartments, according to the Pratt Center for Community Development, and most are found in neighbourhoods with large immigrant and lower-income-earning populations like Queens.
Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at NYU and author who writes on climate change and inequality, told The Independent that Ida’s impact on basement apartments is “what happens when the housing crisis and the climate crisis meet.”
“In New York City, thousands of poor families live below ground, packed into so-called ‘garden’ apartments that are actually basements, where they are always vulnerable to inundation – and a host of other problems too,” he told The Independent.