Two years ago, as Mayor Bill de Blasio pushed expansive plans to create more affordable homes in New York City, his administration launched an initiative to tackle one of the city’s thorniest housing problems: transforming illegal basement apartments into safe, livable spaces.
To many the move was seen as long overdue and in some cases a matter of life and death. There are tens of thousands of such units, the only places where many low-income New Yorkers and immigrants can afford to live, even if cramped, unregulated conditions put them at risk of floods, fires and many other threats.
But after the city promised a program to transform the shadowy world of basement apartments, its initiative has largely foundered. Mr. de Blasio slashed the budget during the pandemic, and only eight homes are participating.
The fate of the basement program has now come under heightened scrutiny after the remnants of Hurricane Ida inundated the city this month, killing 11 people in basement homes. Nearly all those who died in the city, including a toddler and his parents, lost their lives in illegal homes in basements and cellars, often as crushing floodwaters left them with no means to escape. Several were immigrants, neighbors said.
The city has said that it slashed the program last spring as one of several cost-saving measures taken during the pandemic to deal with a staggering budget crisis. Officials have not said whether they intend to restore the funding, or expand the program, as Mr. de Blasio has said he wanted to do.
After Ida, the mayor has acknowledged the problem of basement apartments and says the city plans to better alert or evacuate residents living in them during dangerous storms. But he also said the city does not have a ready answer to the broader question of how to make the illicit underground dwellings, which play a large role in addressing the city’s shortage of affordable housing, safe places to live.
“I could tell you that we’ve got some miraculous plan to solve the illegal basement problem overnight,” he said. “We don’t.’’
The cost, he said, could be several billion dollars. Based on the findings from the program, each conversion could cost at least $250,000 to $310,000, based on existing regulations.
Some housing experts have questioned the administration’s commitment to the issue. The pilot program was a relatively modest investment, and the city has received billions of dollars in supplemental federal pandemic aid.
“The mayor had said that helping to advance safety and habitability in basement apartments was a top priority for him,” said Jessica Katz, executive director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, a nonprofit housing group that is evaluating the city’s basement apartment program. “The basement pilot was a small but serious step in the right direction — which was promptly defunded.”
Ms. Katz, who worked for several years in the city’s housing department until 2017, said “there’s been very little progress from this administration’’ on making basements “better to live in.’’
The city’s stumbles on addressing illegal basement and cellar homes — many of both lack basic requirements like more than one exit — are just one piece of New York’s housing affordability crisis. (Both basements and cellars are at least partially underground, but cellars, in which at least half of the space is below curb level, are always illegal to rent out, while some basements can be legal.)
The coronavirus pandemic, which left hundreds of thousands of people out of work, has made the situation worse, while climate change has heightened the threat of more frequent and fierce storms.
At its core, the challenge is a matter of supply and demand. The number of low-income New Yorkers far exceeds the number of affordable homes, prompting many to seek refuge in dangerous but relatively inexpensive basement homes.
The prevalence of illegal units extends beyond New York. In Utah this year, the State Legislature passed a bill making it easier for people to rent out their basements. In Boston, a pilot program to help homeowners rent their basements has been expanded citywide.
But in few places is the problem as pressing as in New York, where the number of illicit units probably far outstrips those in any other American city. There is no official count, but Mr. de Blasio estimated that there were at least 50,000 illegal units housing more than 100,000 people.
Andrew Rudansky, a spokesman for the city’s Buildings Department, said five of the six homes where people died during the flooding were illegal conversions of cellars or basements into apartments, while a sixth home was a legal basement unit.
In at least four of the five illegal units, there was only one way in and out, according to the Buildings Department, which is investigating the six deaths along with the Police Department.
The pilot program in East New York, Brooklyn, in 2019 was the first meaningful attempt to try to convert such units into legal homes, according to city officials.
When the de Blasio administration rezoned East New York in 2016, many residents feared that new development would lead to significant displacement. Renting out basements could provide newcomers with an affordable home while also bringing in additional income for existing residents trying to pay their mortgage.
The pilot started in March 2019, with about $12 million from the city and a goal to help 40 households in East New York convert their basements to apartments and see if the initiative could be applied across the city.
The city provided about $120,000 per home in loans that could eventually be forgiven to help retrofit the basements and make them legal homes by adding more entrances and exits or sprinkler systems among other items, said Michelle Neugebauer, the executive director of Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, a local group that is running the pilot.
Participants had to have low or moderate incomes and live in the home where the basement was to be converted into an apartment.
There were high expectations, with Mr. Blasio declaring in February 2020 that the pilot could be expanded citywide. The program, Ms. Neugebauer said, was ready to move forward on nine properties and was assessing dozens of others.
Then the pandemic hit. The city cut $7.5 million of the program’s budget, Ms. Neugebauer said, and program was limited to working on just the nine initial homes.
“It’s really devastating,” Ms. Neugebauer said. “We’re just kind of hanging in there by the skin of our teeth.”
The mayor’s office did not respond to questions about using federal pandemic funds or other financial sources to help salvage the program.
One of the nine homeowners dropped out for health reasons, but the conversion process is underway at eight other homes. Once city permits and loans are secured, construction could start early next year and take about seven months, according to the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation
Despite the setbacks, the pilot has been an unexpected boon for one homeowner, Crystal Matthews.
Ms. Matthews, 46, a nurse, bought her house in East New York, a modest three-story building near her sister, more than three years ago because she wanted to have a home available for her aging parents who live a few miles away.
She quickly looked into what it would take to legally rent out her basement, which has both an entrance and an exit to the backyard, to help pay her $3,500 monthly mortgage and other costs. She knew many of her neighbors rented illegally, but did not want to take the risk of being fined by the city.
But even the simple task of installing a sprinkler system as required by housing code could cost up to $40,000, so she dropped the idea. Her basement remained a vacant — and, in her mind, wasted — space. When she heard about the pilot, she jumped at the opportunity.
“With gentrification being what it is, there are people who need somewhere safe to stay,” she said.
Despite the program’s setbacks, Ms. Neugebauer said there have been some valuable lessons.
The high costs of most basement conversions has shed light on the type of funding that would be needed across the city.
Ms. Katz said the pilot could also point to regulations that could be changed to ease conversions. Under current rules, for example, adding basement units requires the addition of new parking spaces, which is a tall order in many dense neighborhoods.
“We have this issue, where you can’t make an apartment a little bit safer, you have to make it perfect, and so we do nothing at all,” Ms. Katz said. “That’s kind of putting our heads in the sand.”
How Can New York City Prepare for the Next Ida? Here’s a To-Do List.
When the remnants of Hurricane Ida swept into New York this month, the storm’s ferocity shocked the city. Even with meteorologists warning of intense rains and flooding, the swiftness with which the storm turned streets into rushing — and deadly — rivers caught officials and residents off guard.
New York has taken steps to prepare for the extreme weather driven by climate change. For years, particularly after Hurricane Sandy flooded much of the region, civic groups, environmental organizations and officials had raised alarms and urged action to protect from extreme storms.
But much of the post-Sandy work focused on flooding caused by rising waters surrounding the city’s shores. The rains brought by Ida — and two other storms this summer that deluged parts of the area — pose a different kind of threat: massive rainfall in a short period.
The storms exposed how New York City’s aging infrastructure — including its vital subway, built for a different climate — needs significant improvements to adapt to the kinds of storms that climate scientists say will be both more frequent and more intense.
Already, urban planners, climate scientists, some local officials and designers have a lengthy to-do list of design and engineering solutions that can help the city meet an urgent need. (Some say they have warned the city about extreme rainfall for years, pointing to past reports.)
Many experts, local elected officials and climate groups are now pressing more forcefully in the wake of a storm that they hope will serve as a wake-up. Here are some of their proposals.
Unclog drains and widen pipes. It’s not an easy task.
The most direct way to reduce flooding from rainfall is to drain it away more efficiently. But New York’s sewage pipes, some of which are more than a century old, were built for a smaller city with a cooler climate that generated less torrential rains.
Some 60 percent of the city is served by a combined sewage system that takes in both household wastewater and runoff from streets. Other cities have separate pipes for those two sources.
During heavy storms, New York’s pipes frequently overflow, backing up the system so that water cannot drain as fast as rain pours down.
The city spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year upgrading sewers, but the pace has not kept up with the changes in weather. Projects are underway to separate combined sewers in several flood-prone areas on the Brooklyn waterfront and parts of Queens on Jamaica Bay.
Still, one of the most immediate fixes for the sewage system is the simplest: better maintenance of existing drains and catch basins, the underground holding pens for water that can become clogged with leaves, mud or garbage.
The city’s Department of Environmental Protection responds to complaints about blocked drains, but officials say more staffing is needed to proactively unclog drains in vulnerable areas. Other state and city agencies are responsible for some drains, like those on highways.
Other measures that would reduce clogs from garbage include more frequent street sweeping and installing street-side containers to prevent household and commercial garbage bags from ripping or being torn by rats and spewing litter.
Some steps to better guard the city against climate change carry significant price tags, though experts say the cost of inaction would be even higher.
“Here we are, wringing our hands and saying it’s too expensive,” said Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist at Columbia University who has researched climate change and cities. “Well, it’s actually too expensive not to do the right things.”
Turn streets, parks and open spaces into sponges.
New York City has more than 6,000 miles of streets and 30,000 acres of parkland — the green spaces soak up countless gallons of rainwater, but the asphalt sends it sluicing onto the roadways and sidewalks. During particularly powerful storms that water cascades into homes, businesses and into the subway.
Infrastructure and public-space experts say the city needs to maximize surfaces to collect, absorb and slow down storm water.
“The challenge for us is to turn New York City into a sponge,” said Amy Chester, the managing director of Rebuild by Design, a nonprofit that works on making infrastructure more resilient to storms and climate change.
Take the streets. Experts say the city should expand a green infrastructure program that includes installing bioswales, or rain gardens — landscaped curbside areas planted with water-loving vegetation. Many cities across the country have used them to help reduce street flooding.
Experts say New York should use more water-permeable materials for its streets and sidewalks, which it has already started doing in flood-prone areas. The city has used Stormcrete, a more porous form of concrete, to reconstruct sidewalks in parts of Southeast Queens and incorporated stone instead of mortar in the joints between pavers to reduce storm water accumulation in Brooklyn.
“These projects weathered Tropical Storm Ida well, and we have plans for similar work,” said Christopher Browne, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Transportation.
The agency will soon operate a new network of flood walls and gates largely on city property to protect roads and neighborhoods from flooding. These are being constructed as part of a citywide flood protection system in areas like the Lower East Side of Manhattan that can be activated ahead of big storms.
Still, the city can do more, identifying how and where neighborhoods flood and redesign streets and other surfaces to direct storm-water runoff to parking lots, schoolyards, parks and even special retention tanks until it can go into the ground or drain into the sewer, said Franco Montalto, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Drexel University.
“It’s kind of like making streets into urban brooks to convey the water to places where it can safely pond without flooding people’s houses,” said Professor Montalto, who is also a member of a mayoral-appointed panel on climate change.
The city, which has adopted guidelines to ensure that public parks are designed and maintained to be more resilient to flooding, has worked on projects to absorb and collect storm water in parks and recreation areas, including basketball courts, and help them recover from flooding.
Since 2013, the Trust for Public Land, a conservation group, has partnered with the city to rebuild more than 40 playgrounds to absorb and collect storm water. Altogether, these playgrounds now collect more than 23.5 million gallons of storm water a year.
“That’s a proverbial drop in the bucket given the billions of gallons of storm water a year, but we need more of these small-scale solutions because every little bit helps,” said Carter Strickland, the New York state director for the trust.
The subway needs to plug leaks. But the M.T.A. can’t do it alone.
After Hurricane Sandy — which ravaged the subway system when corrosive saltwater flooded tunnels and damaged crucial equipment — the Metropolitan Transportation Authority launched a significant climate resiliency effort.
The agency has spent at least $2.6 billion to protect subway openings against flooding, replacing pumps and fortifying tunnels under the East River.
Those improvements have helped to an extent. Janno Lieber, the agency’s acting chairman, noted that the tunnels inundated by Sandy stayed dry or emptied quickly during Ida’s downpour.
But the agency’s efforts have focused largely on stations and tunnels in coastal and low-lying areas. Storms like Ida have revealed the need for a broader approach toward mitigating climate-driven flooding; many of the flooded stations were in higher elevations.
Water has long bedeviled New York’s subway system. It was designed with the knowledge that it would practically always be wet: The tunnels that wind through bedrock are surrounded by groundwater that seeps in.
Storm water mainly enters the subway through the staircases that bring riders underground and the ventilation grates that keep air circulating.
“The subway system cannot be made impervious to water,” Mr. Lieber said. “It’s a hollow system.”
Even on dry days, the system can pump out up to 14 million gallons of water, Mr. Lieber said. But its capacity is overwhelmed by the recent storms that quickly dumped inches of rain in hours.
Much of the water that inundated the system was overflow from the city’s sewage and drainage infrastructure, and the fixes that could help keep water from overwhelming the streets would also help keep the subway system from flooding. They would also aid the subway’s pumping system, which sends excess water into the city’s sewers.
But many urban planning and transit experts have encouraged an even more aggressive approach.
After a storm in July, the Regional Plan Association, an urban planning research and advocacy group, released an analysis that found that as many as one-fifth of subway entrances, more than 400 total, could be affected by significant flooding in a storm in which 3.5 inches of rain fell per hour. Ida dropped 3.15 inches of rain on Central Park in one hour.
“The system has been tested from this,” said Robert Freudenberg, the association’s vice president for energy and environment. “And we’ve found where the weaknesses are.”
Sarah M. Kaufman, the associate director at the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University, said the transit authority needed to do a better job clearing its 418 miles of drains and troughs.
A report released last month by the M.T.A.’s inspector general found that at the authority’s targeted pace for cleaning drains — 150,000 linear feet a year — it would require 15 years to clean the entire system. Officials have said that they would move to clean drains on a four-year cycle.
Ms. Kaufman also encouraged city and state officials to think on a larger scale and take lessons from other cities facing similar issues. She pointed to Tokyo, which has built up its flood defenses in part by constructing gargantuan underground cisterns to capture runoff and has put floodgates at subway entrances.
Dr. Jacob, the Columbia geophysicist, suggested that New York could look to Taipei, Taiwan, where many subway entrances were raised slightly to keep out street-level flooding. (Doing this across New York’s subway would require accommodations for people with disabilities, an area where the system has traditionally lagged.)
Mr. Lieber said that the system was exploring raising some entrances. Engineers were also mulling ways to efficiently plug the vents or cover the grates through which water could pour. The transportation authority has already installed “flex gates,” waterproof barriers it can deploy to cover some subway entrances, at stations in traditional flood zones.
Still, any engineering solutions will be expensive for a system already facing financial burdens.
Making Streetside Dining Permanent
It’s Monday. Today we’ll look at “streeteries” — amid a wider discussion about the street space they now occupy and whether the city would be better off if some of them went back inside.
The coronavirus pandemic moved New York City’s restaurants onto the sidewalks and into the streets. Now the city is moving to make a variation of its Open Restaurants program permanent. In July, the city proposed a change to zoning rules that would permit restaurant structures at the curb to stay up indefinitely. Officially, they are only temporary now. The city expects to begin taking applications for the permanent structures late next year.
The restaurant industry, one of the city’s economic tentpoles, is doing better now than it was at the beginning of the year, when the New York City Hospitality Alliance said that 92 percent of restaurants could not pay the rent. Still, Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the alliance, said that only about two-thirds of restaurant employees have returned to work since pandemic restrictions on dining were eased. Restaurants added only 3,000 restaurant jobs in August, the fewest in any month this year, he said.
Complicating the picture for restaurants were two incidents last week. One involved an Upper East Side restaurant that has a shedlike structure at the curb. A 28-year-old man was shot while having dinner outside. The police said he got into a struggle with one of two men wearing masks who jumped out of a sport-utility vehicle and approached customers in an attempted robbery.
The other incident underscored the continuing tensions over vaccinations, as well as restaurant workers’ new frontline roles in dealing with regulations. The police arrested three women from Texas who they said had punched a hostess at Carmine’s, an Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side. The police said last week that the hostess had asked to see proof that the women had been vaccinated.
But on Saturday, lawyers for the restaurant and the women, who are Black, said the three had provided that documentation. The lawyers said the brawl began after two men who joined their party could not provide similar proof.
Justin Moore, a lawyer for one of the women, described the altercation as “mutual combat” and said that the hostess had used a racial slur. But Carolyn Moore, a lawyer for the restaurant, said by email that “nothing about this incident suggests race was an issue.”
A “wild, wild West atmosphere”
From an urban planning perspective, Open Restaurants was not about keeping customers plied with entrees, desserts and drinks — and thus keeping restaurants in
business. It was, and is, about how public spaces in the city can be used.
Daniel L. Doctoroff — a former deputy mayor who is now the chief executive of the urban-innovation company Sidewalk Labs — argued in an Op-Ed in The Times in July that planners “need to think bigger than dining sheds,” noting that he was “not anti-shed” but “pro-public space.”
Opponents say that making outdoor dining permanent would compound neighborhood headaches.
One neighborhood where opponents have been particularly vocal is the Lower East Side — “an incubator of what not to do,” said Diem Boyd, the founder of the community group L.E.S. Dwellers. She complained that outdoor restaurants have contributed to an “open-air nightclub, wild, wild West atmosphere.”
Opponents like Ms. Boyd and Cue-Up, an alliance of community groups whose full name is the Coalition United for Equitable Urban Policy, maintain that the Open Restaurants plan would amount to a “land grab” for restaurants. Micki McGee, a member of Cue-Up, said that permanent outdoor restaurant facilities would also create “a streetscape populated by restaurants that are no longer serving the neighborhoods but are serving as tourist attractions.”
Worse, Ms. Boyd said she was concerned that the city’s plan would drive out retailers. “The mom-and-pops that you love, the tailor shop or the vintage shop, they’re going to go, because the landlord is going to say ‘I can put a cafe in there, I can have the roadbed, increase the rent,’” Ms. Boyd said. “It’s going to kill small businesses.”
We’re ushering in the cooler weather, New York, with temps in the mid-70s and the chilly, low 60s at night.
In effect today. Suspended tomorrow and Wednesday (Sukkot).
In the city with 8 million stories, 1 million new daffodils
Even after 16 months in charge of a group that gives away daffodil bulbs, Adam Ganser has yet to plant a single one.
Maybe soon, he finally will. The group, New Yorkers for Parks, is busy distributing a million bulbs around the city.
It decided in May — when case counts were lower and the delta variant had not emerged as a highly contagious threat — to resume an annual project it canceled last year because of the pandemic. The daffodil bulb distribution began as a tribute to those killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
“Covid brought back many feelings about 9/11 because it was another big catastrophic event, but it was also very different,” Mr. Ganser said. “9/11 happened in an instant. Covid has been going on for 18 months, and we’ve seen how people have really relied on the parks in that time. Planting something is one of the ways people can feel normal.”
Planting is also anticipatory, which implies hope — will anything pop up in the spring? Will it be worthy of Wordsworth? After all, he beheld a lot of daffodils: “Ten thousand saw I at a glance.”
New Yorkers for Parks hopes to beat that by a factor of 100, doubling the number from 2019. People who want to plant were required to register during the summer. They can pick up bulbs at sites around the city this month.
Some take whole bags of 550 bulbs each. Others claim only 50 or so.
New Yorkers for Parks does not tell them where to plant what they take. It’s strictly FYOL (find your own location) and BYOT (bring your own trowel).
The daffodil project began with an offer of donations from a Dutch bulb company and the city of Rotterdam after the Sept. 11 attacks. Later it became something of a citywide beautification campaign, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, acknowledging the group’s efforts, designated the daffodil as the city’s official flower in 2007.
New Yorkers for Parks has an alliance with the Parks Department and its Green Thumb community gardens program, which will distribute nearly 90,000 bulbs this year. It also hired the graffiti artist Michael De Feo, who is known as “the flower guy.”
He designed a new logo, featuring — what else? — daffodils.
“The daffodil project is the physical version of what I do with paint,” Mr. De Feo said, “and this creates engagement with the city we live in, just like one aspect of doing work in the streets for me is to get people engaged with their city and reawaken their senses.”
On a rainy Queens Saturday in early 1968 — or was it 1969? — my buddies Andy, Carl, Charlie and I gathered for our weekly two-on-two basketball game.
Rather than play outside, Carl, who was a student at St. John’s at the time, suggested we go to the university’s gym.
There was a game scheduled for that evening, but the building was open and it seemed empty. As we walked down a hallway toward the polished wood floor, who should emerge from his office but Lou Carnesecca, the venerable St. John’s coach.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
Just looking to play some hoops, Coach, we said.
“Get out of here,” he said, not unkindly.
Cuomo Ally Resigns From Post as State Watchdog
Two top staffers, Melissa DeRosa and Richard Azzopardi, as well as Linda Lacewell, the head of Department of Financial Services, have moved on after the attorney general’s report found they had helped the former governor respond to and contain allegations of sexual harassment.
And three Cuomo appointees to the ethics commission — Camille Varlack, Daniel Horowitz, and James Dering — have resigned in the past month, although Mr. Dering was recently reappointed by Ms. Hochul.
Other appointees have found themselves the subject of speculation around their futures. Howard Zucker, whose handling of nursing home deaths as health commissioner attracted wide criticism, remains with the administration. So too do Robert Mujica, who served as Mr. Cuomo’s budget director, and Janet DiFiore, another JCOPE alumna, now serving as the state’s top judge.
A longtime Cuomo ally, Larry Schwartz, chief strategy officer of OTG, an airport concessions company, stepped down from his position as the governor’s “vaccine czar” in the spring. He is still listed on the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, however.
Ms. Hochul, who was sworn in Aug. 24, has said that she will take the first 45 days of her administration to review existing appointments.
Whomever Ms. Hochul appoints, the inspector general, under state law, will continue to report to the governor’s secretary. Under Mr. Cuomo, that position was most recently held by one of the governor’s closest allies, Ms. DeRosa. “If you had an independent inspector general, they would have been very busy during Cuomo’s time in office,” said Mr. Kaehny, the good-government advocate.
Ms. Adair, Ms. Tagliafierro’s temporary replacement, has been with the agency since 2020. Like her predecessor, Ms. Adair is an attorney who has worked closely with Mr. Cuomo, serving as his special counsel for ethics, risk and compliance.