How Ida turned the basement apartments into death traps

In one of the world’s most expensive housing markets, they’ve provided low-income New Yorkers, including many working-class families who ...


In one of the world’s most expensive housing markets, they’ve provided low-income New Yorkers, including many working-class families who work in restaurants and hotels, with affordable housing. Basement apartments also provide additional income for small owners, many of whom are also immigrants.

“In most places, if you have a house and your basement is big enough, most people rent out their basements,” Ms. Seecharran said.

This week, however, as rain flooded New York City, poignant scenes unfolded in those basements.

Deborah Torres, who lives on the first floor of a building in Woodside, Queens, said she heard desperate calls from the basement apartment of three family members, including a toddler, as the floodwaters were rushing. A powerful cascade of water prevented anyone from entering the apartment to help – or anyone leaving. The family did not survive.

In a house in Forest Hills, Queens, floodwaters passed through a sliding glass door into a basement apartment, pinning Darlene Lee, 48, between the apartment’s steel front door and the door frame. Property manager Patricia Fuentes heard Ms Lee screaming for help as others tried to free Ms Lee as the waters rose. But they couldn’t save her.

The regulation of these apartments has long been problematic. The law governing these apartments is complex and includes rules that state that the ceilings in a basement must be at least 7 feet 6 inches high and that living spaces must have a window. The city must approve apartments with a certificate of occupancy before they can be rented.

Between January 2011 and Tuesday, the city had received more than 157,000 complaints about illegal conversions. Illegal conversions include basements that have been turned into residential units, but also single-family homes that have been turned into multi-family buildings and units that have been converted into short-term rentals.

But more than half of the cases were closed after an inspector was unable to access housing, according to a New York Times analysis of building department data.

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