Police officials are investigating the six incidents in which basement apartment dwellers lost their lives during last Wednesday’s storm, opening up the potential for criminal charges against homeowners who may have created dangerous conditions for their tenants.
Of the 13 people who were found dead in New York City, 11 were trapped in a flooded basement, and the Department of Buildings has said that five of the six of these were illegally converted basement or cellar units.
Multiple agency investigations into building-related deaths are not unusual. Following its investigation, the NYPD may elect to refer the case to the Queens or Brooklyn District Attorney’s office. Five of the homes where people died were located in Queens, while one was in Brooklyn. The one basement apartment which was a legal unit was located on Grand Central Parkway in Queens.
During his morning press briefing on Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio was vague about what kinds of punishment homeowners who rented their basements illegally might face.
“We are going to hold people accountable, but not in a way that punishes the tenants,” he said.
The mayor called regulating illegal basement apartments a “Herculean task.” Across many neighborhoods, such units offer an affordable housing option to low-income New Yorkers, especially immigrants, while also helping some middle-class landlords pay their mortgage.
In 2019, the city launched a pilot program to legalize such units by providing low or no-interest loans to homeowners seeking to bring the apartments up to code. But the mayor recently called the effort a failure, since it failed to solicit much interest.
“I could tell you that we’ve got some miraculous plan to solve the illegal basement problem overnight. We don’t,” de Blasio said. “It is a massive structural problem in the city. It has been for decades. We don’t have an immediate solution to this one.”
By definition, a basement is a unit that has at least one-half of its height above the curb level, while a cellar has more than one-half of its height below the curb.
The city estimates there are at least 50,000 basement units, housing more than 100,000 residents. But one tenant advocacy group, NYC Base Campaign, has counted more than 312,000 such units across the city.
The number of 311 complaints over suspected illegal basement dwellings has dropped in recent years, even prior to the pandemic. In 2018, there were 19,969 complaints; the following year, that number fell to 16,776.
Although cases of residents drowning in basements do not appear to be common in recent history, negligent homeowners have in the past faced criminal charges following fatal fires.
In 2016, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson indicted a Brooklyn pastor on manslaughter and other charges for a fatal fire at an illegally subdivided building he owned that left one tenant dead and nine others injured.
The fire occurred in 2014 after an overloaded electrical circuit caused a water cooler to burst into flames.
At the time of the indictment, Thompson said, “This defendant was well aware of the danger of running an illegal SRO, but chose to ignore numerous violations and vacate orders issued over many years resulting in this devastating fire that killed a young man and injured many others.”
Not all of the criminal cases brought against landlords have involved a fatality. In 2013, a Queens landlord was charged with reckless endangerment and other crimes for allegedly packing nearly 50 people into illegally converted apartments across four houses in Jackson Heights and Elmhurst.
“This property owner sacrificed public safety for his own profit,” said Robert LiMandri, the commissioner of the Buildings Department, at the time. “And his arrest demonstrates that there are serious consequences for creating such dangerous living conditions in New York City.”