Housing advocates push to loosen illegal conversion rules

October 14, 2013 12:45PM

The scarcity of affordable housing in New York City is prompting some housing advocates to push for a loosening of the city’s illegal conversion rules.

The city’s Department of Buildings issues more than 4,400 violations per year for illegally converted basements, cellars and attics that legally cannot be occupied because of hazards like poor ventilation or a lack of multiple exits.

But a push from elected officials, community groups and building industry professionals to loosen existing standards is already flexing some muscle. The Bloomberg administration, for instance, waived the current 450-square-foot minimum for studios so that it could plan micro-units for a Kips Bay building to open in a pilot project in 2015.

“Micro-units are the high-end version of the basement units,” City Council member Brad Lander told the New York Times. “There are a lot of units that are perfectly safe that can’t be made legal under current rules.”

New York’s housing regulations, some housing experts told the Times, were written largely to prevent slum conditions and firetraps, and as such are increasingly out-of-touch with the city’s modern culture and concerns.

Additional housing potential also lies in the conversion of cellars, which can currently never be rented or occupied. Basements in homes, meanwhile, can be rented out when zoning permits as long as they have a second way out and meet air, light and sanitation requirements. But such conversions can cost a prohibitive $15,000, not to mention the lengthy process of securing the necessary permits.

The biggest challenge for the push comes froms neighbors who see illegal units as a drain on schools, hospitals, parking lots and other resources. The buildings department told the Times it received 18,126 complaints about illegal units last year, and Queens Borough President Helen Marshall said she has heard little expression of support for modifying current regulations. [NYT] Julie Strickland