Illegal basement apartments seen as one answer to NYC housing shortage

Scott Stringer and brownstones with basement entrances
Scott Stringer and brownstones with basement entrances

With New York’s incredibly tight supply of affordable housing, illegal basement rentals are on the rise, especially in the outer boroughs. But some industry experts see the illegal rentals as a boon — not a hazard — to the city and are pushing to change the rules governing what are known as accessory dwelling units, according to Crain’s.

Chhaya Community Development, a group that focuses on immigrant and affordable-housing issues, estimates that there are more than 100,000 illegal basement units renting mostly to young professionals and immigrants across the city.

“They’re really one of the last [affordable housing] options out there,” Seema Agnani, executive director of Jackson Heights, Queens-based Chhaya, said.

A Manhattan-based coalition of housing groups, known as Immigrant Housing Collaborative, has long championed the idea of changing zoning laws to allow for accessory dwelling units — something that cities such as Santa Cruz, Calif., and Orlando, Fla., have already done. But recently the idea received an endorsement from Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, which has helped popularize the initiative.

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A study from Stringer’s office found that altering the rules surrounding accessory dwelling units could add tens of thousands of affordable units to the city’s legal housing stock and would spur economic growth.

However, some such as CBRE chief executive Mary Ann Tighe has argued that the plan is hardly a panacea for the city’s affordable housing problem.

“Legalizing [dwellings] alone will not materially increase the housing stock since these illegal units are already occupied,” Tighe said. She went on to suggest that converting buildings in manufacturing districts to residential use would have a greater effect. “The city has embarked on rezoning these areas, but there are still more that are underutilized.” [Crain’s] —Christopher Cameron