By Harry DiPrinzio
A reader asks: I am living in a basement at [address withheld] and just wanted to know if it is legal. It is a walk-in basement and the situation I am facing living in the basement is unbearable.
City Limits answers: It is difficult to tell if your apartment is an illegal unit. The building is registered as a two-family home with three stories, in addition to an on-ground cellar that is designated as a garage. So, it is possible your apartment is an unregistered illegal unit.
If the unit is legal, you can file complaints with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and the Department of Buildings (DOB) by calling 311. The agencies will visit to conduct an inspection and issue violations. After that, if the landlord does not make the repairs, you can bring them to housing court.
You can also attempt to withhold rent until your landlord makes repairs, or you could bring your landlord to housing court immediately to force them to make the repairs, says Andrea Shapiro, program manager at the Met Council on Housing.
If your apartment is illegal there is a risk of being vacated from the property.
“The general problem with illegal apartments is that the tenant is basically in a Catch-22,” says Jonathan Fox, director of the Tenants Rights Unit at the New York Legal Assistance Group.
An inspection by the DOB could lead to an order to leave. However, “If a tenant doesn’t inform city authorities, it’s very unlikely the landlord will make changes to the apartment to make it more habitable,” says Fox.
The DOB has an enforcement team that investigates complaints of illegal apartment conversions. If the team finds an illegal apartment, it issues violations and penalties against landlords.
“DOB only issues vacate orders for an illegal apartment as a last resort, when we find a living space that is posing an imminent hazard to residents,” says Andrew Rudansky, deputy press secretary for DOB.
“If an illegal apartment is found to not pose a danger to tenants, then we will take enforcement action but not issue a vacate order,” he says.
In the case that a vacate order is issued, tenants are offered immediate relocation assistance by the American Red Cross.
According to Rudansky, DOB inspectors have investigated over 18,000 complaints of suspected illegal conversions in the last 12 months. Over that time, there were 1,613 vacate orders issued city-wide for unsafe illegal units and other reasons such as after a fire makes a building uninhabitable.
Illegal basement apartments, perhaps similar to yours, are not uncommon. A 2008 study estimated that there were more than 114,000 illegal basement apartments in New York City. Your neighborhood of Canarsie has a high concentration, according to the report.
The city is taking steps to address illegal apartments. A pilot program established this year legalizes basement and cellar apartments in East New York and establishes interest-free city funding for landlords to make renovations.
Your landlord can also apply to convert your apartment to a legal dwelling, if the space complies with the building code and the area’s zoning code. One prerequisite: it must be more than 50 percent above ground. If this is the case, your landlord should contact the DOB to do so.
Originally published in City Limits on June 26, 2019