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New York City’s illegally converted apartments proved deadly in Ida’s path

By Mark Morales and Christina Maxouris, CNN

Most of the homes where residents were found dead in New York City after the remnants of Ida battered the region were illegally converted basement or cellar apartments, city officials said Friday.

An analysis that was done by the city’s buildings department in the aftermath of Wednesday’s massive flooding showed that five of the six structures were illegal — and were also the location where 10 of the city’s 13 victims were found.

The victims included a 2-year-old boy who was found dead with both his parents in their makeshift home, officials said.

“We know the basement apartments create a whole set of particular challenges,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in his Friday briefing. “We are now going to be speaking — going forward — to people who live in basement apartments, specific messages, specific cell phone alerts, telling people about the vulnerabilities they face in these kinds of rain events.”

Illegal conversions are defined by the city as an additional room that was constructed without getting the proper permits by city officials, according to the buildings department. They usually have common characteristics, such as no escape route that can be used in emergencies, shoddy gas or electrical work and substandard construction in areas with no light or ventilation, according to the buildings department.

Annetta Seecharran, executive director of Chhaya Community Development Corporation, a housing advocacy group, says people typically live in those illegal basement conversions because they can’t afford other, pricier options.

“They’re often the most vulnerable, vulnerable New Yorkers,” Seecharran said. “They are often immigrant families… It could be an elderly family member.”

“Typically they’re people who cannot afford any other options,” she added.

Mayor announces new alert system

De Blasio said the city will now be reaching out to residents who live in illegal basement or cellar apartments before storms hit to tell them to evacuate.

He added that the city has “a lot of information” when it comes to creating a database of basement apartments, but “there’s more to put together.”

“We’ve got to have a clear database to work from, and certainly begin with knowing the areas, which we do know where they are prevalent,” the mayor said. “So, this is some of the work we have to perfect now. This was not something we thought of previously, when you thought of evacuation in a storm. It’s now what we have to do.”

The goal, according to the mayor, is to get ahead of fast-moving storms that turn dangerous and deadly before residents have a chance to escape. That new strategy includes knocking on resident’s doors to alert them of an incoming major storm and sending emergency alerts to cell phones.

The protocols come after the city works to recover from the storm’s hit.

City officials have so far towed more than 1,300 cars left behind by drivers when the water lever became too high, Emergency Management Commissioner John Scrivani said, while workers have also de-watered hospitals, government buildings, and homes.

Across the city, there were reports of more than 1,000 buildings with damage, Scrivani said. Officials from the city’s Department of Buildings are doing inspections at those properties across the city, buildings commissioner Melanie E. La Rocca said in a statement.

‘We can’t continue to turn a blind eye’

There is no clear number of how many illegal apartments exist in the city.

The buildings department has received more than 8,000 complaints of suspected illegal conversions so far this year, according to their data. They received more than 11,000 complaints in 2020.

“The time has come for us to address this issue, of bringing basement apartments up to code,” Seecharran, with the advocacy group, said. “We can’t continue to turn a blind eye.”

She added that homeowners may also rely on the money coming in from people living in those illegal conversions, making a difficult situation even worse.

“It’s literally about having the will to create a program that will incentivize homeowners and not penalize homeowners to raise their hands and say ‘Hey I have an illegal basement, I really want to bring it up to code.’ If people can do that safely without fear of being penalized, without fear of being fined, they will.”

De Blasio said the city tried a pilot program to bring illegal conversions up to code but the endeavor saw little progress and proved costly, he said.

The plan now is to work with community groups to do outreach with residents who may be undocumented or speak other languages, to let them know that asking for help will not lead to deportation or eviction, the mayor said. In addition, officials will work to get a proper count up of how many illegal structures exist in the city and then work to bring them up to code. The city estimates there are roughly 50,000 illegal basement apartments in New York City.

But in the meantime, officials will work to let residents know they can call 911 without fear of backlash.

“If you’re in any danger at all, call 911, and never wonder if your documentation status will be asked. It will not be. Never wonder if there’ll be any threat to the place that you live in. If you call because you’re in danger, we want to save lives,” de Blasio said. “We’re not here to make people vulnerable.”

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