Going Underground: Why Basements May Prove The Solution To The Housing Crisis

A study shows that there are hundreds of thousands of basements and cellars in the city.

By Jeff Vasishta February 17, 2017

With 210,000 basements and cellars across the city currently deemed illegal for residential habitation, a new study first reported in Crain’s concludes that legalizing them could be a big help to NYC’s housing crisis.

The report found that the potential benefits of converting basements to legal dwellings could be huge—namely, because the buildings are already in place and would not need any more space.

“There is a convincing scale to this,” said Sarah Watson, deputy director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, which authored the report. “We’ve set out the major arguments for conversions and our recommendations about how a pilot program could be structured.”

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However, converting a basement to a habitable dwelling is an extremely nuanced and complicated matter. The simplest thing to push through the pipeline are single-family homes, of which there are 38,000. However, most of these are in Staten Island, Queens and South East Brooklyn, along with Eastern Bronx. The main snag is that single-family homes with additional living space require extra parking facilities, which opens another can of logistical worms.

The study suggests starting a pilot program in a community, which supports the proposal and has the inventory of single-family houses. Additional incentives would include expedited permits and waivers or modifications for certain building regulations that could be changed without city or state approval. A list of knowledgeable and reputable contractors would also be provided.

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In a space-challenged city like New York, many residents have already tapped into the resource beneath their buildings, often creating illegally finished basements and cellars. There’s a distinct difference, too, between the two. A basement is a story partly below curb level but having at least one-half of its height above the curb level. A cellar is an enclosed space having more than one-half of its height below curb level. Under certain circumstances, a secondary kitchen for cooking may be approved by the city. But generally, any basements or cellars of multi-unit dwellings are not eligible for habitation.

Often, those with access to a basement such as utility companies reading meters may tip off code enforcement officers about an illegally occupied basement. Even if a kitchen stove is hastily removed, evidence of a gas line is usually enough to warrant heavy fines. Emergency services are particularly concerned about illegal basements because of safety issues. Poor ventilation, carbon monoxide poisoning and people sleeping in close proximity to furnaces and water heaters are major issues.

There are also many illegal basements in the city with tenants, who are sometimes undocumented, paying cash to landlords who don’t declare it as income. New city and state laws to legalize the city’s subterranean apartments could potentially be a boon to tax income while providing information about Gotham’s true population.




Jeff Vasishta



Jeff is a writer, husband and father but not necessarily in that order. As a music journalist he counts Prince, Beyonce and Quincy Jones amongst those he’s interviewed. He's also owned and flipped homes in Brooklyn, NJ, CT and PA.

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