HomeReal EstateIllegal Conversions: 83% of NYC Basement Drownings

Illegal Conversions: 83% of NYC Basement Drownings

Ida Storm Causes Flooding in New York City Boroughs

Hurricane Ida turned into a storm that caused torrential rain and flooding last week in many New York neighborhoods, and nearly halted the subway system. Well over three inches of rainfall was recorded in just one hour, more than the city has ever witnessed.

Mayor Bill de Blasio was finally forced to declare a state of emergency and urged people to stay inside their homes. The extreme weather is being blamed primarily on climate change.

At Least 11 People Dead in Basement Apartments

There were 11 people who were trapped and drowned due to unprecedented flooding in some of New York’s basement apartments. The Department of Buildings in New York City announced last week that 5 out of 6 of these basement apartments were illegal conversions.

Four illegal conversions were in Queens and a fifth house was in Brooklyn at 491 Ridgewood Avenue. The people who lived in these subterranean homes could not escape the powerful wall of water that blocked their only exit.

Any Legal Conversions?

According to RealtyHop data, the only legal conversion was out of Queens, at 61-20 Grand Central Parkway.  The building, known as “Fairview Cooperative Apartments”, is a massive complex with 14 stories and a total of 424 residential units.  Most of the units there have sold between $260K and $400K in the past 3 years, with a relatively large amount of appreciation during the pandemic.


There are a few instances of same-unit sales transactions over the years.  For example, Unit sold for $185,000 in 2005, but late last year in December 2020 sold for $319,000.  Of course, a 72% return over 15 years is reasonable, but not exactly incredible.  For example, the stock market and most real estate markets have appreciated more (with plenty of volatility in between).

Low Income Housing Issues

The demand for low income housing for residents and immigrants that can’t afford regular housing is greater than the supply. Therefore, some homeowners who have basements available will rent that space out to those struggling individuals.

This has been a common practice in many New York City boroughs for decades. The problem occurs when these basement apartments, or conversions, don’t meet basic standard safety requirements.

Illegal Conversions

It is illegal for homeowners to alter any structure to include additional units without permission, and legal conversions must have a safety inspection certificate before occupation. This is to ensure basic human safety, by making sure proper electrical, plumbing – and more than one exit – are installed.

Illegal conversions are most often occupied by undocumented immigrants, as they are priced lower than other housing options and they don’t need to produce legal documents to live there. Their options are severely limited, so it doesn’t really matter that these dwellings are often illegal.

The Problem

There are estimates of more than 100,000 homes having illegal conversions. However, no records currently exist on which locations or exactly how many homes have them. Therefore, shutting them all down is an impossible task, and would only add to the already significant homeless problem, anyway.

City officials struggle with how to get people to report the illegal conversions. Residents fear eviction and deportation, and owners fear fines and citations.

The Solution

The Department of Buildings got over 1100 complaints of flood damage which they are taking seriously, and physically inspecting each location. Cataloguing the houses with conversions is the first step in Mayor de Blasio’s plan.

It also involves an early warning system and door-to-door mandatory evacuations of these residents – once we know where they are. Critics of de Blasio are complaining it’s not enough. Only time will tell.

Rochelle Harris is a passionate writer originally from Phoenix, AZ. who credits her success to integrity and determination. She has a great sense of humor, loves music and her family, and writes fiction and poetry in her spare time. She is excited about the New York experience and lifestyle! Follow Rochelle on Twitter at @LinguisticAnRky or get in touch at [email protected]