below market

De Blasio’s Tiny Houses Plan for Apartments in Basements, Garages and Backyards

A row of residential buildings with basement units in East New York, Jan. 22, 2020
A row of residential buildings with basement units in East New York, Jan. 22, 2020 Photo: Trone Dowd/THE CITY

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The de Blasio administration wants to make it easier for homeowners to legally add apartments in basements, atop garages — and even in backyard tiny houses — to boost affordable housing.

The plans, shared Wednesday with THE CITY, entail easing parking requirements as well as supplying low-interest loans to finance construction that would bring the new digs up to code.

“The key to unlocking more housing for New Yorkers is just below our feet,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. “Legalizing basement apartments will give homeowners a new way to make ends meet and give thousands of New Yorkers an affordable place to live.”

He’s expected to formally announce the effort Thursday during his State of the City address at the American Museum of Natural History.

Plan Needs Money and Rule Changes

The city plans to set aside $150 million in capital funds for the loans. Zoning changes woud address rules that currently require additional parking spaces for new apartments in many residential areas — action that could take at least two years, the mayor’s office indicated.

De Blasio administration officials expect at least 10,000 safe and affordable units could be added to the housing-starved city within the next decade under the proposed changes, which require City Council approval.

The new dwellings could even include “tiny homes in a backyard,” City Hall officials said, though they didn’t offer details.

The Pratt Center for Community Development estimates that New York City already has as many as 114,000 occupied basement apartments.

Will Spisak of Chhaya Community Development Corporation, a housing advocacy group, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the new de Blasio plan.

“If this really does allow for easier basement conversion experiences, and allowed folks to create accessory dwelling units on their property, this could be really transformative for a lot of homeowners,” said Spisak, the organization’s director of housing justice.

Crawling in East New York

De Blasio is looking to blaze ahead with this citywide effort even as a three-year pilot program testing the concept is barely off the ground in East New York — and struggling to reach tenants who live in tenuous situations.

Since last July, homeowners in that Brooklyn neighborhood have been eligible to bring basement apartments up to code to legally rent them out, under a measure passed by the City Council and signed by the mayor.

The Basement Apartment Conversion Pilot Program aims to provide small low-interest or forgivable loans to up to 40 eligible low- to middle-income homeowners living in one-, two- and three-family homes to help pay for construction work.

Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers the 2019 State of the City address on the Upper West Side, Jan. 10 of last year.
Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers the 2019 State of the City address on the Upper West Side, Jan. 10 of last year. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

To be okayed by the city Department of Buildings as habitable, the apartments must have a sprinkler system, ventilation and windows, as well as at least two ways to exit in an emergency. Landlords also have to abide by affordable housing rules that cap rents at 30% of a tenant’s income.

After spreading the word across Brooklyn Community District 5, the local group Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation has helped hundreds of interested owners with paperwork.

Restored Homes, an organization advancing affordable homeownership, has already assessed 100 homes and vetted the architects and contractors who will do the upgrades.

“We’ve clearly tapped into this wellspring of interest throughout the community,” said Ryan Chavez, who runs the conversion program for the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation. “There are just countless stories at this point of homeowners who have told us what the potential of this program holds for them in terms of potentially providing them a financial lifeline.”

The city Department of Housing Preservation and Development will ultimately decide on the final 40 homes for the pilot program. Cypress Hills LDC is looking to have architectural plans approved by the Department of Buildings by the end of the year, Chavez said.

Homeowners Hesitate

Most of those apartments, however, don’t exist yet. Cypress Hills LDC is straining to convince owners who already have tenants illegally living in basement apartments to consider signing up to convert.

Just 10% of the buildings up for consideration already have occupied basements, according to Chavez.

The test’s sponsor, City Councilmember Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn), said he had hoped for more participation involving current renters. “It’s been more homeowners with basements which are not yet occupied, which don’t have someone living in them,” he said.

City officials point out the pilot program provides relocation assistance during construction so that existing tenants can return to a safe newly renovated and legal apartment.

Still, Cypress Hills LDC’s Stephanie Becker said that fears of Department of Buildings enforcement kept some owners on the sidelines.

“Right when the pilot was announced, as we’re going out and saying, ‘We have this new program, we represent the city!,’ there were news reports and articles about DOB cracking down on illegal basement apartments citywide,” she said. “It’s been a bit complicated.”

Low Ceilings, High Costs

Another concern is that ceilings in some already occupied apartments may be too low to meet a seven-foot height cutoff.

“If you’ve got an existing unit and someone’s already living there, to then not let that unit into the program because it’s got a relatively low ceiling rather than making the unit safer seems a penny wise and pound foolish,” said Lander.

Overall cost also is among the reasons homeowners ultimately say no thanks to the opportunity.

“The big one is not feeling comfortable incurring debt,” Chavez said. “Whether they think the city will be too bureaucratic during the process or taking on an additional loan at this point, it’s the main reason people are saying no.”

City officials say they’ve already discovered that the current additional parking requirements for new dwellings also was a major barrier to getting the new apartments up to code.

Chhaya CDC, which will relocate existing tenants during the conversion process, provide tenant counseling and oversee enforcement of affordable housing rules once tenants move back in, says that they are ready to do their part once the 40 homes are decided on.

Spisak noted “the pilot [program] has allowed us to gather a lot of data and information on basement apartments, on the incentives and challenges of homeowners.

Referring to de Blasio’s city plan, Spisak added, “That may have played a big role in convincing the city that this is a viable project.”

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