Storm flooding is reckoning for New York City real estate

Flooding raises questions about future of basement apartments, storm mitigation

Wednesday’s storm has reignited a debate over whether the city should legalize basement apartments. (Getty)
Wednesday’s storm has reignited a debate over whether the city should legalize basement apartments. (Getty)

When water started seeping into Jackeline Franco’s East Elmhurst home on Wednesday, she called the company that had just repaired her roof, frustrated that it was already leaking.

Then she looked outside.

“The water was mid-thigh, easily three feet above the ground,” she said.

She and her family survived the storm, unlike more than a dozen other New Yorkers, but spent the next two days moving waterlogged furniture from the basement to the yard, hoping some of it can be salvaged. Franco’s newly widowed mother had been living there since April.

“We redid the entire basement and accommodated it for her,” Franco said. “It was a very lovely, livable apartment.”

Fortunately, her mother was not there when water broke through the door’s plexiglass window. Within 15 minutes, water had reached the ceiling.

At least 11 of the city residents killed by Tropical Storm Ida were reportedly in basement apartments at the time, and five of the six where people died had been illegally converted, the Department of Buildings said Friday.

The fatalities have raised questions about efforts to legalize such units, with some urging caution and others saying they underscore the need to help people living in them. Attorney General Letitia James on Friday called on the city to provide emergency housing vouchers to all residents of illegal basement dwellings.

To be a legal residence, basement units must have a minimum ceiling height of 7-and-a-half, in some cases 7, feet, a window in every room and an exit to the outside. In February 2020, Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed legalizing basement apartments throughout the city, building on a pilot program launched in East New York. At the time, he estimated that such a move would add some 10,000 affordable housing units over the next decade.

But the city is estimated to have more than 100,000 basement apartments. Moreover, the program’s budget was gutted during the pandemic, and plans to apply it citywide have stalled.

De Blasio told MSNBC on Friday that he is establishing a task force to set new evacuation rules for basement apartments. The city had already planned to set up a system for alerting basement residents about forecasted “extreme rain events,” but not until 2023. According to the New York Post, the administration also missed a deadline this spring to change the Uniformed Stormwater Rule to prevent runoff at development sites.

Jay Martin, president of landlord group the Community Housing Improvement Program, said he sees a path to safely legalizing some basement apartments, and believes the city desperately needs more housing, but warned against rushing the process. Robert Nelson, president of Nelson Management, said the flooding serves as a “stark reminder as to why some of these basement locations should not be legal.”

Photo via Michael Wolfe

Photo via Michael Wolfe

But Annetta Seecharran, executive director at Chhaya, which has long advocated for the legalization of basement apartments and helped shape the East New York pilot program, said she was fed up with delays in legalizing these units. She believes this week’s flooding should galvanize elected officials.

“We see this as evidence that basement apartments are real homes for real New Yorkers and that they need to be safe,” she said. “This is it.”

She emphasized that simply legalizing basement apartments would not automatically make them safe, so additional action is needed.

“People are living in basement apartments across this city. Not dealing with the issue, not giving people a path to bring their properties up to code, we endanger the lives of people,” she said. “This storm — do we need another example here?”

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Despite warnings earlier in the week that the remnants of Tropical Storm Ida were headed for the Northeast, the city was woefully unprepared for Wednesday’s flash flooding. But some of its limitations are built in to its infrastructure.

The city’s sewers are designed to handle 1.75 inches of rain per hour. An unprecedented 3.15 inches of rain fell in a single hour Wednesday, overwhelming drainage and sewer systems. In May, the administration released a report that cited projections that every five years from 2040 to 2069 the city could expect a storm that delivers 2.15 inches in an hour. Ida surpassed that by 47 percent, and 19 years ahead of schedule.

Videos from Wednesday night show raging rivers in subway stations, people wading in knee-deep water and abandoned cars floating along city streets.

“I don’t know of anybody who could have prepared for a situation like this,” Nelson said.

Following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, many property owners moved their buildings’ essential infrastructure to higher ground, often the roof, and invested in mitigation equipment, such as floodgates.

But the ability to move mechanical systems and retrofit in pre-war apartment buildings is limited, said Michael Wolfe, president of FirstService Residential, which manages more than 70,000 apartments. He noted that the sudden onslaught of water during Wednesday’s storm caught property owners off-guard, and some might not have raised their floodgates in time.

“It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, we’re going to get a gazillion inches at one time,’” he said of Wednesday’s forecast.

Wolfe spent Thursday responding to buildings that had, in some cases, six feet of water in their basements. Properties in his portfolio that had floodgates fared well, but those that had never experienced water events — and were not even in flood zones — were among the hardest hit.

“We had rainwater pipes in our garages and basements that exploded. We never had that before,” he said. “What is your fail safe on that? If the city system can’t absorb this type of rain, where are you putting the water?”

His company is looking into how to add drainage options for the buildings most at risk of stormwater backups.

Michael Rothschild of AJ Clarke Real Estate said his firm may look into waterproofing doors across its portfolio but isn’t sure what else to do.

“Retrofitting a pre-war building to deal with massive water events, I don’t know where we would go with that,” he said. “It is hard to think about what you could possibly do.”

Martin said his members are preparing for a boiler shortage, given the number destroyed by Wednesday’s flooding. He noted that property owners had already been trying to figure out how to pay for retrofits to comply with the city’s emissions cap, Local Law 97, and have been pushing for subsidies.

“To make these buildings watertight and energy efficient on top of that is going to cost upwards of billions and billions of dollars,” he said.

Additional reporting by Cordilia James