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.