Life in the Cellar
Monir is lying on a mattress in a dark room in a Queens basement, smoking, dressed in a sarong. He is in his 50s, and has lost most of his hair and his life-spirit. He left Bangladesh thirty-six years ago, first going to Germany, where he worked in restaurants, then to New York, then to Michigan, where he bought a house and lost it during the foreclosure crisis. He went back to Bangladesh for a spell, and is now back in New York driving a cab, earning money to send to his three kids; his eldest daughter is finishing medical school. He has no network of financial support here that he can fall back on. So, for the last two and a half years, he’s been forced to live below ground in this windowless cell, because it only costs $300 a month including heat and electricity and television.
There’s a living room in the front of the basement apartment, then three wooden doors along the corridor leading to three tiny rooms. Opposite each door is another door, numbered “1,” “2” and “3”—the storage spaces for each of the residents. In the back are a kitchen and a boiler room, and stairs leading to a junk-strewn backyard.
Monir has no windows, I note, peering around the approximately 10' by 10' room, which contains, in addition to the mattress, a chair, a desk, a collapsible vinyl closet and a calendar hung on the wall.
“Yes, I have window,” he responds, pointing to a 6" by 12" opening near the ceiling, covered over in plastic.
There’s enough air in the apartment, he insists. In the summer they install a communal air-cooler in the living room. The rear door to the basement is always open, even in the winter, and they have no fear of burglars because there’s a seven-foot fence around the back. Besides, the burglars would find slim pickings in their apartment—the furniture is such as one might find on recycling day on the sidewalk, and the only electronic item is a mid-sized flat-screen TV and DVD player. But the apartment is clean, and warm. It is also illegal.
Up to half a million New Yorkers live like Monir does, in anywhere between a 100,000–200,000 spaces below houses all over the city. If half or more of the apartment is below the ground, it’s technically a “cellar” and therefore unfit, according to the city’s building code, for human habitation. Monir’s landlord could spend a year in jail or be fined up to $15,000 for the crime of letting Monir live in his basement.
The vast majority of these conversions are in the immigrant quarters of Queens and Brooklyn. Some are squalid tenements without air or light; others are places you or I could live in. Some are rented out by unscrupulous landlords preying on tenants who don’t know or can’t enforce their rights. Others—often when there’s a common ethnic background—are communal arrangements in which the tenant and the owner become one family, eating together, helping each other navigate the new land.
New York State defines a “housing emergency” as vacancy rates below 5 percent. The current vacancy rate in the city is 2.1 percent. Half of all New Yorkers spend over a third of their income on rent; a third spend over half. They desperately need more, and cheaper, housing options. One of the more obvious ones is to legalize basement residences, but very few politicians want to touch the issue, for fear of alienating the NIMBYs on community boards. As a result, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers live in a kind of residential twilight zone, half in the light, half in the darkness.
The debate around illegal basements is mirrored in the one about illegal immigration. Everybody knows there are people living illegally in the basements, and they’re not going away because the city has no place to put them if they’re evicted. But the authorities and the politicians will not legalize them, invoking fears of density, school overcrowding and shortages of parking spaces.
I saw the extent of this crisis when I went walking around Jamaica, Queens, one cloudy, warm, humid June day with the staff of Chhaya, a community development organization that was conducting a survey of illegal conversions. “We’re very old school,” said Seema Agnani, the head of the organization. “We knock on doors.”
We set off along roads lined with close-gathered, but detached, single-family houses, populated by African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans. Many of them had roses growing in the front yards. “The gardening in this community is amazing,” Agnani noted. But a couple of houses in every block were abandoned, boarded-over. “The Department of Buildings has determined that conditions in this [sic] premises are imminently perilous to life,” read the notice outside a stone house that also boasted a more upbeat sign by the front door, in greening copper: “La Petite Maison.” Right next to this house, a father and his young son were watering their well-kept lawn outside their large, immaculate house. “A lot of people have lost their houses here,” a Greek woman passing by told us. But La Petite Maison was not completely abandoned; a pair of grey sweatpants was drying on the front railing.
Above the sidewalk was a mass of black cables: electricity and cable wires. Lines ran out randomly into the houses, without any discernible order. “If there’s one bad storm, this whole block could go,” observed Agnani. At one intersection an electrical cable had been severed and was hanging about five feet above our heads.
The extensions from the main line could have been residents stealing electricity or cable services. One of the markers of an illegal conversion was if a one-family house had more than one extension. Other signs were extra doorbells, mailboxes, entrances or a cable splitter. These were duly noted on the survey forms. According to the survey, 82 percent of the single-family homes that Chhaya visited in Jackson Heights and Jamaica showed signs that the basement was occupied.
Some of the houses had paved-over front yards, which now had cars parked on them. “There are, like, ten cars in this place,” said Shaan, another of the surveyors, after going around the back of one of the houses which was a block from the subway. They didn’t look like city cars; they were bigger: minivans, SUV’s. They seemed to belonged to commuters coming in from Long Island, parking their cars in these ersatz lots, and taking the F train into Manhattan. Like the residential arrangements, the parking in these parts also is in a gray zone between legal and illegal.
Right now, the city seems to have adopted a policy of benign neglect of the illegal basement issue, while publicly taking a hard line about illegal conversions. According a city audit which examined the city’s response to complaints about the conversions in 2008, the Department of Buildings tried to investigate complaints 23,410 times. They failed to get access to the building 67 percent of the time. Inspectors applied for access warrants in 0.5 percent of the cases. The total number of vacate orders issued during the year was only 657. Not one of the properties where the orders were issued was later inspected to make sure their owners complied with the order. Around three-quarters of new housing added in Queens in the 1990s is illegal.
Some of the city’s politicians are beginning to get it. A report put out last December by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer notes, “Maintaining the status quo is dangerous and unacceptable. Thousands of ADUs (accessory dwelling units, as the basements are known in official parlance) are on-line and occupied now and their impact is already known. If they remain illegal, it is unlikely that they will ever be brought up to code, and may continue to violate fire, egress and other life-safety regulations. A new process must be created that will legalize the apartments.”
Opponents of legalization often bring up horror stories of people dying in fires, because many of the basements lack more than one exit. I myself saw a lot of apartments which are out-and-out firetraps, such as one where the landlord hadn’t paid the electricity bill, so the six tenants in the basement hadn’t had power for the previous twenty days, and used candles and an extension cord from the first floor to light the basement. If there were a short circuit in the cord or the candle tipped over, the tenants might burn to death in their sleep, since the smoke alarm wasn’t working either.
But if the city were to legalize apartments like Monir’s which have two entrances, it could save its resources and energy to focus on the ones that are truly unsafe. Thirty-five percent of the illegal apartments could be made legal with minor modifications of codes and regulations, according to a survey by Chhaya and the Pratt Center.
Many other governments, such as the city of Santa Cruz and the state of Washington, have revamped their zoning regulations to legalize “accessory dwelling units,” with no ill effect on their neighborhoods. If New York City were to do the same, says Stringer’s report, “this reform would take the 100,000+ illegally-converted units in the five boroughs out of the shadows, while ensuring that they remain a critical part of the City’s affordable housing stock.”
What would legalization mean to someone like Monir?
“Mentally you get more relaxed because you’re legal. Especially if you live with kids, family. You can claim for police, ambulance; you won’t have hesitation.” Today, if he falls and hurts himself, Monir will think twice about calling for official help. The cops might come and take him to the hospital, but also report his illegality. So he never asks the city for anything, even though he is a citizen. He can never get utilities in his own name; he must rely on the generosity of the people living legally in the floors above to share their bandwidth with him.
“It is illegal but administration knows,” he points out. The underground apartments are for the “minority community, the poor or newcomer.” Whether their neighbors like it or not, the basements are all around the city, and the people living in them are not about to leave anytime soon.