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A Bronx Basement Highlights New York City’s Biggest Problem

When Mildred Velez was looking for her first home in 1965, she settled on a modest place in the Bronx because it had a basement unit for her mother-in-law. Years later, after her mother-in-law died, Mrs. Velez rented the unit to a disabled woman and then to a retired law enforcement officer.

The spacious apartment — with several windows and three ways in and out, including to a backyard — felt like an ideal space for anyone looking for an affordable home in one of the most expensive cities in the country.

But one day in 2018, a city inspector showed up at Mrs. Velez’s front door and delivered some startling news: City regulations prohibited anyone from living in the basement. She was breaking the law.

The violations have plunged Mrs. Velez, 90 — who is still renting out her basement — into a yearslong morass of fines and bureaucracy. It has also made her an emblem of one of New York’s most urgent housing problems: how to deal with the tens of thousands of illegal basement homes that remain an intractable feature of the city’s housing stock.

Those problems were put on stark display in September, when the remnants of Hurricane Ida killed 11 people in basement homes, most of them illegal, prompting calls for a better way to legalize and regulate the homes.

There is no reliable data on basements and cellars that are being illegally rented out across New York City. Some may pose deadly threats to the people who live in them — as illustrated by the deaths during Ida where people drowned and had no way to escape because there were not enough exits. But others may only be illegal because they run afoul of a tangle of technical and possibly outdated city regulations.

The homes are not just important sources of income for working-class or lower income New Yorkers like Mrs. Velez. They are also crucial to addressing the city’s affordable housing shortage.

Yet the case of Mrs. Velez shows how challenging it can be, under existing law, to find a solution.

Her violations, which stemmed from an anonymous complaint, appear to center on paperwork filed more than 50 years ago that incorrectly classified the unit as a cellar. Cellars are underground units where at least half the unit is below curb level, and can never be legally rented. But Mrs. Velez’s unit is only a fraction of a foot below curb level.

Getting the paperwork fixed would, according to one estimate provided to Mrs. Velez, involve at least $6,500 for an architect and thousands more in engineering and other work, which Mrs. Velez said she cannot afford. Even if she could, she would then would not be likely to meet other requirements for basement units, like having enough parking space.

Mrs. Velez said her only other income is Social Security, and she needs the rental income from the basement — she charges $800 a month — to support herself. So she continues to accumulate fines on what she maintains has been a livable apartment for decades. City records show, that as of Oct. 6, she faced $18,000 in fines.

“If it wasn’t working in 52 years, you don’t think something would have gone wrong?” she said. “I’m not asking for them to give me anything. I’m just asking them to give me some peace of mind.”

But the city’s Buildings Department maintains that Mrs. Velez needs to stop renting the basement unit or get the permits to amend her paperwork and legalize the apartment. Those permits would be necessary for the city to ensure that qualified people had done any construction work on the unit and that it was a safe place to live.

Andrew Rudansky, a spokesman for the agency, said Mrs. Velez has “been repeatedly provided with detailed guidance” by the department “on how to correct the violating conditions in her cellar.”

“To date, the owner has failed to take the necessary steps to correct the violations,” he said.

Jessica Katz, executive director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, a nonprofit housing group, said Mrs. Velez was “caught in this web of all the regulations around basements.”

Ms. Katz has been trying to help Mrs. Velez find a solution, but she said her situation shows the need to ease city requirements for some homes and to offer financial support for legalization.

“We fail to provide homeowners with a tool kit on how to know and understand what their obligations are, and the tools and the resources to comply with those obligations,” she said.

There are some efforts to address those issues. A bill in the State Legislature would allow basement units to evade some cumbersome regulations, including by eliminating parking requirements, and would direct the state to find a way to help pay for renovations.

Mrs. Velez’s case does not reflect all the issues with illegal basement and cellar homes. Several of the apartments where people died in Ida, for example, only had one way in or out.

Still, city officials have been grappling with the problem for decades: The number of low-income New Yorkers far exceeds the number of affordable homes, prompting many to seek refuge in cheaper basements. And for many lower-income or older New Yorkers, basements are a crucial source of income.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has estimated that there are at least 50,000 illegal units, had pledged to find a way to legalize them. But the city’s one serious attempt, a pilot program in Brooklyn, has largely fallen short amid pandemic-related budget cuts, and Mr. de Blasio last month expressed skepticism that a realistic solution was possible.

Mrs. Velez, who used to rent an apartment in another part of the Bronx, said she never would have moved to Throgs Neck with her husband if it had not been for the basement unit. And she remains adamant that for decades there has been no reason to believe that it is not a safe place to live.

The first tenant in the mid 1990s after her mother-in-law died was a disabled woman who relied on Section 8 housing vouchers, she said. Federal officials had inspected the basement and found it to be an acceptable home, Mrs. Velez said.

The current tenant, who has been living in the apartment since 2005, declined to speak on the record because he is a retired law enforcement officer who said he feared retaliation from criminals he once apprehended.

But he said he has had no problems with Mrs. Velez or the apartment other than a few inches of water that flooded the basement during Ida. He said he first heard about the basement from Mrs. Velez’s neighbors across the street who used to babysit his brother’s children and thought it would be affordable and convenient.

He has grown close to Mrs. Velez and plays dominoes with her every Saturday. He said he has thought about moving out because of the problems with the city, but the basement is comfortable and Mrs. Velez have come to depend on each other.

Mrs. Velez, who no longer has any family living nearby, agrees that the living situation has been harmonious. The rent payments are crucial, but the tenant also helps her with chores and groceries.

“My tenant downstairs is as if I had a son downstairs,” she said.

But the unpaid fines could lead to the placement of a lien on her property, and the fear of losing her home has Mrs. Velez feeling stressed.

Every 90 days, she receives a letter reminding her of her failure to address the violations stemming from the 2018 complaint. And last month, a fresh complaint was anonymously filed against her.

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Robert Durst, Millionaire Convicted of Murder, on Ventilator With Covid

Robert A. Durst, a former real estate mogul, is on a ventilator in a Los Angeles hospital after testing positive for Covid-19, days after being sentenced to life in prison for the 2000 murder of his confidante.

“We were notified that he tested positive for Covid,” his lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, said on Saturday.

Mr. Durst, 78, was admitted Friday night to LAC+USC Medical Center, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s inmate locator. The district attorney’s office said it could not comment because of medical privacy laws.

At a sentencing hearing on Thursday, Mr. Durst sat slumped in a wheelchair. He wore a brown prison jumper and a mask. At times, his breathing appeared labored. He pulled down his mask, only to raise it again moments later.

“His health deteriorated over the weeks of the trial,” Mr. DeGuerin said. “On Thursday, he looked like death warmed over.”

Mr. Durst was frail and had numerous health problems but was alert during the four-month trial that ended on Sept. 17 with a first-degree murder conviction. Mr. Durst, whose life story inspired a Hollywood movie and an HBO documentary, will not be eligible for parole.

The jury that convicted him in Los Angeles found that the prosecution had proven special circumstances – namely, that Mr. Durst shot Susan Berman, a journalist and screenwriter, because he feared she was about to tell investigators what she had learned as his spokewoman to the news media after the 1982 disappearance of his first wife, Kathie McCormack Durst.

Mr. Durst faces a possible murder indictment in New York in connection with the disappearance of Kathie Durst. Miriam E. Rocah, the district attorney of Westchester County, N.Y., reopened the investigation earlier this year and planned to put numerous witnesses in front of a grand jury.

Mr. Durst acknowledged to filmmakers that before Ms. Durst disappeared, his marriage included “half arguments, fighting, slapping, pushing” and “wrestling” But he insisted, he did not kill her.

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Homes That Sold for Around $1 Million

Each week, our survey of recent residential sales in New York City and the surrounding region focuses on homes that sold around a certain price point, allowing you to compare single-family homes, condos and co-ops in different locales.

The “list price” is the asking price when the property came on the market with the most recent broker. The time on the market is measured from the most recent listing to the closing date of the sale.

New Jersey | 4 bedrooms, 3½ baths

A 34-year-old, 3,608-square-foot, contemporary-style house, with a living room that has a vaulted ceiling and stone gas fireplace, and a kitchen with a breakfast bar and sliding doors to a deck on 1.35 acres.

18 weeks on the market

$975,000 list price

4% below list price

Costs $16,073 a year in taxes

Listing broker Coldwell Banker

Orange County | 4 bedrooms; 3 full and 2 half baths

This 21-year-old, 5,978-square-foot house has a kitchen with stainless-steel appliances, a formal dining room with a coffered ceiling, and a primary suite with a two-sided fireplace on about two-and-a-half acres.

14 weeks on the market

$965,000 list price

3% above list price

Costs $28,403 a year in taxes

Listing broker Howard Hanna/Rand Realty

Connecticut | 4 bedrooms, 3 baths

This 59-year-old, 1,894-square-foot, split-level-style house has a living room with a skylight and a fireplace, a kitchen with a skylight and granite counters, and a partially-finished basement on more than an acre.

15 weeks on the market

$875,000 list price

5% above list price

Costs $10,856 a year in taxes

Listing broker Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices New England Properties

Queens | 3 bedrooms, 3 baths

An 81-year-old, 1,330-square-foot, attached single-family house, with a living room that has hardwood floors, an eat-in kitchen, a finished basement and a parking space, on 0.04 acres.

16 weeks on the market

$888,888 list price

4% above list price

Costs $7,142 a year in taxes

Listing broker Douglas Elliman

Manhattan | 1 bedroom, 1 bath

A 650-square-foot prewar co-op, with hardwood floors, beamed ceilings, a kitchen with a breakfast bar and stainless-steel appliances, and four closets in a doorman building with an indoor pool.

29 weeks on the market

$1,075,000 list price

6% below list price

Costs $2,437 a month in maintenance

Listing broker Warburg Realty

Long Island | 3 bedrooms, 2 baths

This 64-year-old, 1,634-square-foot, vinyl-sided house has a combined living and dining room with a vaulted ceiling, a kitchen with a breakfast bar, a koi pond and a dock, on 0.17 acres.

11 weeks on the market

$879,000 list price

Less than 1% above list price

Costs $15,453 a year in taxes

Listing broker Douglas Elliman

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‘My Waitress Had Also Been Told That She Would Soon Be Laid Off’

Dear Diary:

In the mid-2000s, I worked for a company with offices on Park Avenue. I lived in Denver then and would fly to New York for meetings several times a year, staying at the company’s suites at the Waldorf Towers.

I often had breakfast at the hotel’s Coffee House, at 50th Street on the Lexington Avenue side. My usual order was tea and toast. The tea was served in a small pink teapot with a silver rim, a Waldorf signature.

The little teapots became a comforting morning staple on these trips. I was served by the same waitress over a period of years, and I often mentioned to her how I loved the teapots.

In October 2014, I read that the Waldorf had been sold. Then, while on my next trip to New York, I was notified that my company would be merging my division with one in Fort Worth and that I, along with 300 others, would be laid off. The trip would be my last.

The next morning I had my usual breakfast at the Coffee House. My waitress had also been told that she would soon be laid off. I said I would miss her and, of course, my little pink teapots.

It was my last morning at the hotel and I had already checked out. My travel bag was open on the floor next to the booth where I was sitting. I stepped away for a few minutes, returned, tipped the waitress and left for the last time. It was a sad morning.

When I got home to Denver and unpacked my bag, I found a little pink teapot wrapped in a hotel napkin along with a note. It said all of the old Waldorf china and silver was to be sold and that this was a souvenir from my many breakfasts there, compliments of a longtime friend.

— Mary F. Cook

Dear Diary:

I am on the F train
And two seats away is a man
Whose hair is too gray
For his sneakers.
He sits his iced coffee
On the space between us
Because it is too cold
To hold in his iPhone hands,
And I begin preparing
The furious words
I will say
If it tips over
And spills on me.
It never does,
But at least I was ready.

— Sarah Peele

Dear Diary:

Walking uptown on Fifth Avenue I heard Latin music blasting out of a little red car.

As the driver sped by, he had one hand on the wheel and the other was out the sunroof.

In time to the music, he was shaking a bright yellow maraca.

— Linda Schonfeld

Dear Diary:

For years, Mr. Kim and I have been racing to beat the clock: I try to get home from work before his dry-cleaning shop closes, and he tries to keep his delivery man around to help me bring my clothes home.

Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, and sometimes we just wait until Saturday.

Recently, I called him from the subway to say that I would be making a pickup. We had a few confused exchanges, I entered a tunnel, we were disconnected and the race to beat the clock began.

I missed the delivery man, but Mr. Kim and I were happy to see each other. We chatted while he twist-tied four bundles of shirts. Seeing that I was already carrying two bags, he came out front to his sewing machine in a panic and started to dig through a heap of pants and jackets.

From the middle of the pile, like a sorcerer, he pulled out two matching, navy-blue cuffs that had been cut off the pants legs they once belonged to.

He looped them into a figure eight, and then hung two bundles from each loop, 25 shirts on hangers that he then draped over my shoulder, front and back.

It was the easiest giant load of laundry, dirty or clean, that I have ever hauled happily down Broadway and the long hill to Riverside Drive.

— Paul Klenk

Dear Diary:

The downtown A train was quiet and nearly empty as I rode downtown after a meeting in Midtown. Across from me was a young man with an extremely large plastic container of peeled garlic cloves.

Every so often, he would unscrew the lid and let the garlic aroma fill the subway car. Then he would intently re-tighten it until it was time for the next infusion.

No one complained.

— Karen Faye Richardson

Illustrations by Agnes Lee

Read all recent entries and our submissions guidelines.

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