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Queens lawmakers call on Albany to make basement apartments safe for tenants to live in

Assemblymembers Steve Raga, pictured, and Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas took part in a rally in Jackson Heights Friday, March 24, calling on state lawmakers to help make basement and cellar apartments safer for tenants to live in (Photo via NYC Basement Apartments Safe for Everyone Twitter page)

March 29, 2023 By Michael Dorgan

A pair of Queens lawmakers took part in a rally in Jackson Heights on Friday, March 24, calling on state lawmakers to help make basement and cellar apartments safer for tenants to live in.

Assembly members Steve Raga and Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas joined housing advocates and community groups at Diversity Plaza for the rally, where they urged state lawmakers to pass a bill that would bring basement apartment dwellings up to code. Diversity Plaza is located on 37th Road between Broadway and 74th Street and on 73rd Street between Broadway and Roosevelt Avenue.

Many attendees held red or white signs reading, “Legalize basement apartments” and “Make cellar apartments safe.”

The rally was organized by various housing groups and advocates who are part of a campaign called NYC Basement Apartments Safe for Everyone (BASE), which aims to make basement apartments safe, legal and affordable. The organizing groups included Chhaya, a Jackson Heights-based nonprofit that addresses the housing and economic needs of low-income South Asian and Indo-Caribbean New Yorkers.

The bill, if passed into law, would authorize the city to establish a program whereby basements and cellars could be legally converted for residential use, by adhering to minimum safety requirements. Raga and Gonzalez-Rojas are co-sponsoring the bill in the State Assembly.

Thousands of property owners across Queens and the city have already converted such spaces into unlicensed apartments.

Many of these apartments are dangerous to live in as they are susceptible to flooding given they are situated below ground. For instance, 11 Queens residents died during Hurricane Ida in 2021 — with most of the victims drowning in basement apartments

The bill would not automatically legalize every basement or cellar apartment. Instead, the legislation would allow the city to establish clear standards for which basement and cellar apartments can be made safe to live in.

Governor Kathy Hochul included a provision to legalize basement apartments in her draft state budget proposal. It remains unclear whether the provision will be included in the final budget agreement and so advocates want the bill passed to force a change in the law, organizers of the rally said.

Raga said that the bill would help better protect tenants living in basement or cellar apartments.

“Creating a pathway to legalize basement and cellar apartments is crucial for ensuring the safety of tens of thousands of tenants in New York state,” said Raga, whose 30th Assembly District covers Woodside, Elmhurst, Maspeth, Jackson Heights, Astoria and Middle Village. “We urge Governor Kathy Hochul to prioritize this issue in the final budget and prevent further loss of life. It is imperative that we take action to improve the safety of basement apartments in New York.”

The bill would also create a loan program whereby landlords could make the necessary upgrades to make basements and cellar apartments safer. Advocates also say the bill would help tackle the housing crisis by making more apartments into the market.

The bill is being sponsored in the state Assembly by Assemblyman Harvey Epstein and in the state Senate by Senator Brian Kavanagh. Both lawmakers represent districts in Manhattan.

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