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Sandy Forced Poor to Leave Illegal Units

Superstorm Puts Spotlight on Tens of Thousands Of Affordable but Often Illegal Forms of Living Spaces in New York City

By Laura Kusisto
December 26, 2013

Superstorm Sandy has placed a spotlight on tens of thousands of basement apartments, attics and other informal living spaces which are forms of affordable housing that are often illegal but also vital in New York City.

Advocates for the poor said thousands of people were dislodged from such apartments after the 2012 storm, and many are still homeless, as their landlords have difficulty finding resources to fix illegal residences. Such units often rented for less than nearby legal units and were home to people with low incomes.

It is hard to come by hard numbers of illegal apartments in the coastal areas slammed by Sandy, neighborhoods such as Midland Beach in Staten Island and Rockaway Park in Queens. City officials say 63,000 residential units were damaged during Sandy, and advocates estimate that under counts thousands of illegal apartments.

“It’s true that a lot of the units were maybe illegal, almost definitely substandard,” said Judith Goldiner, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society. “I’m not going to tell you they were great housing, but on the other hand they were affordable housing to a lot of low-income people.”

Not all basement apartments are illegal. They can be legally rented in some cases if they are more than half above ground, have seven-foot or higher ceilings and comply with a host of other city regulations. Housing advocates are pushing to legalize basement apartments that meet safety standards, and Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has said he supports bringing them into the regulated housing system. Safety concerns have slowed such efforts.

Unregulated apartments posed special problems for homeowners trying to make repairs after Sandy. Many were unable to get government funding to repair illegal basement units, or their units now sit below the floodplain and can’t be rebuilt.

Others were afraid of seeking help and getting fined when their undeclared apartments were discovered. The Department of Buildings has issued about 30,000 violations for illegal apartments since 2009, including more than 4,400 in 2012.

Some homeowners relied on the rental income to help pay their mortgages, putting them in danger of foreclosure. Of 31,700 pre-foreclosure notices filed in the city between November 2012 and November 2013 nearly 8% were in Sandy-hit areas, according to the Center for New York City Neighborhoods.

Before Sandy, Gloria Harris, a 49-year-old Health and Hospitals Corp. employee, lived on the second floor of her two-story Rockaway Peninsula home and rented the main floor for $1,100 a month. When she asked for disaster recovery money, she said the Federal Emergency Management Agency called her house a one-family home and wouldn’t pay for repairs to the second floor. She has stopped making mortgage payments but said she can’t afford to lose the house.

“Even if I sell the house and I go to rent, with the money I make I can’t afford rent in Brooklyn, or even in Queens,” said Ms. Harris, who bought her home in June 2011.

A new shortage of apartments in Sandy-affected areas has led to higher rents.

Make the Road, a nonprofit group that advocates for immigrants and the poor, surveyed 450 renters who lived in Staten Island neighborhoods hit by Sandy and found that the median rent increase was $200 a month, measured from before the storm until recent weeks. That amounts to a $2,400-a-year increase for that group of Staten Island renters, whose median income was $19,000 a year.

“What we’re seeing as a result of this is families are just absolutely scraping by. Almost everybody we talk to is cutting in their food budget,” said Melissa McCrumb, a Sandy response coordinator at Make the Road.
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Victorina Ramirez, with her 14-month-old daughter Valery Pillco, at her home in the Midland Beach neighborhood of Staten Island Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

The exterior of Ms. Ramirez’s home Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

Victorina Ramirez, 28, lost all of her possessions when Sandy slammed into the home where she rented a basement apartment in Midland Beach in Staten Island. When she returned she said the landlord had increased the rent by $50 to $900 and expanded the laundry room.

The sound of the dryer during the night would wake up Ms. Ramirez’s 6-year-old daughter, who thought it was another storm coming.

“She was coming to me and saying ‘I don’t want to go to sleep. I hear something. I am scared because I know maybe Sandy is coming again and they take my toys away from me,” said Ms. Ramirez, who has another daughter born 19 days before the storm.

Ms. Ramirez decided to rent a two-bedroom house, but she said her rent has increased $1,000. She can’t afford to buy shoes or clothes or send money home to her family in Mexico.

More than 2,500 renters applied out of 26,000 applicants overall to the city’s Build it Back program—although advocates say many people they work with were unable to apply because they were occupying illegal units and the landlord wouldn’t acknowledge their tenancy or they were afraid to apply because they were illegal immigrants.

[…]

Building new rental housing in flood-prone areas presents challenges. City officials are concerned about getting enough money from the federal government. Some residents said they don’t want their neighborhood to change with new high-rise buildings.

To read the full article, visit Wall Street Journal.