By Allison Dikanovic, additional reporting by Trone Dowd, originally published in THE CITY
During a pandemic where many homeowners are struggling to make payments and homelessness is running high, Claudette Macintosh was looking forward to helping on both fronts.
The 62-year-old health care worker, who lives with her mother and daughter, was slated to turn the basement of her East New York home into a rental apartment. If all went as planned, the unit would bring in another source of income for her family and provide affordable housing for someone in need.
Macintosh had been one of the first nine homeowners approved to be part of the city’s Basement Apartment Conversion Pilot Program, in Brooklyn’s Community District 5, covering East New York and Cypress Hills.
“I want to participate because there are so many displaced people in Brooklyn who don’t have shelter or anywhere to go, and I wanted to provide housing so people don’t have to keep leaving East New York and Brooklyn,” she said.
Tiny Houses, Big Plans
The program launched in March 2019 to offer a pathway for 40 homeowners to get a low-interest loan through the city to bring their basements up to code as rental units.
In his Feb. 6 State of the City address, Mayor Bill de Blasio supercharged the concept by pledging to help homeowners citywide convert basements or garages into apartments — and even build tiny houses on spare patches of space.
But the mayor’s proposed 2021 budget throws the endeavor into doubt.
The spending plan slices $1.09 million from the basement conversion program — more than 92% of its current budget.
William Spisak, director of housing justice at Chhaya Community Development Corporation — a Queens group that has long advocated for a path to legal conversion — suggested the cut could have bigger repercussions.
“We felt we were on a clear track towards citywide basement conversion programs,” he said, “and now we find ourselves in a place where we don’t know what the future holds for basement apartments.”
Hundreds of Homes
More than 30 community-based organizations are pushing to find a way to preserve the program, secured from the mayor as part of East New York’s 2016 rezoning following more than a decade of advocacy.
“It was a program that was urgently needed before the pandemic hit, and now it’s a program that’s urgently needed more than ever,” said Ryan Chavez, the program’s director at Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, which helps administer the pilot.
“What we’re talking about here with this program is not a one time boost, but the possibility of providing a check every month for years on end and stable homeownership. Now that is a stimulus.”
In the pilot’s first year, more than 900 homeowners expressed interest and more than 300 submitted eligibility paperwork, according to Chavez. City inspectors ultimately examined more than 100 basements in East New York and Cypress Hills.
Jose Lopez, another homeowner who qualified for the pilot, grew up in East New York and lived in a basement apartment with his wife when they first got married. Now, the teacher and the hospital worker want to turn their basement into an affordable apartment to “pay it forward.”
“People are having to live in shared apartments just to be able to come home and sleep, but in this case, a basement rental would be able to help out,” Lopez said. “It would alleviate the homeowners paying their mortgages, it would help local businesses, and it would help out the whole neighborhood.”
Homeowners like Lopez lost a key ally when the pilot program’s City Council champion, Rafael Espinal, resigned suddenly in January.
Espinal had negotiated the basement apartment test as one of his demands in exchange for his support for a major rezoning of East New York sought by de Blasio.
“The pilot was probably one of the most politically viable cuts to make, cutting from a lower income community of color that doesn’t have a Council member,” Spisak said. “When you don’t have a Council member defending that turf, programs are going to be cut.”
A ‘Difficult Choice’
Representatives from the city’s housing agency say they had no choice but to hit the pause button.
“The basement pilot program is an innovative tool for unlocking more affordable housing,” said Jeremy House, a spokesperson from the city’s Department of Housing, Preservation and Development.
“In the face of severe budget constraints and larger concerns about the health and safety of residents and workers during this crisis, we’ve made the difficult choice to pause the program for now, but remain committed to pushing forward with this important work as soon as possible,” he added.
A spokesperson for the mayor, Jane Meyer, said the citywide project is on hold as well.
“Due to this pandemic, we have had to focus City operations and funding on the immediate crisis response and saving lives. We will be able to re-evaluate this basement initiative once we start to recover,” she said in a statement.
With the program ending before a shovel has gone into the ground, and no loans issued yet, those who thought they had arrived at a solution to help homeowners and tenants legalize needed apartments are worried about the long term consequences — especially in communities hardest hit by the coronavirus.
“You can see concentrations of basement units in working class communities, in immigrant communities, in communities where homeownership is sometimes precarious,” Chavez said.
“These communities have been disproportionately affected by the virus, and they’re going to suffer the most from the economic catastrophes that are happening now.”
City records show the Department of Buildings issued 5,151 violations to property owners for illegal apartment conversions in 2019, mostly in Brooklyn and Queens. Some demanded immediate shutdown of the illegal apartment in the face of a $1,000-a-day fine.
That enforcement continues, city buildings officials confirm, with relocation assistance if a tenant is ordered to vacate.
“Tenants who live in basements are some of the most vulnerable people in the city,” Spisak said. “They’re the ones we’re all applauding right now because they’re the essential workers still delivering our food, doing our construction and working in our warehouses, but they’re also the only ones right now who can literally still be evicted.
“They can be issued a vacate order, even with the eviction moratorium in place.”