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NYC basement apartments are still unregulated, despite Hurricane Ida deaths last fall

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Last September, the remnants of Hurricane Ida dropped unprecedented rainfall on several eastern states, killing dozens of people. Eleven of them were Queens residents who died when their basement apartments flooded. The storm spotlighted the dangers of illegal basement apartments, home to an estimated 100,000 New York City residents. And now with another hurricane season underway, Gwynne Hogan from member station WNYC reports that tenants of these unregulated apartments still face many of the same dangers they did last fall.

GWYNNE HOGAN, BYLINE: Last September, I met 19-year-old Litzy Gutierrez on her front stoop. She was sifting through scrapbooks of family photos and dabbing them with a paper towel.

LITZY GUTIERREZ: Yeah. It's been pretty rough cleaning.

HOGAN: Her family had lived for a decade in an unregulated basement apartment in Queens. During Ida, floodwaters filled it nearly to the ceiling, and they narrowly made it out alive. They lost everything.

GUTIERREZ: It's very hard to see a home you grew up in getting destroyed, you know?

HOGAN: In the months since, the family has moved into the apartment upstairs. And on a recent steamy afternoon, visible signs of the flood were long gone.

GUTIERREZ: Hi, Gwynne.

HOGAN: Gutierrez says since they moved upstairs, her fear of storms is fading.

GUTIERREZ: To be honest, we don't even, like, worry about it no more.

HOGAN: But the basement apartment that flooded isn't empty. New tenants have moved in. Nearly all of the basement apartments where people died during Ida were illegally converted. Those kinds of apartments often don't have emergency exits or proper windows to make them safe. But city and state officials say evicting people isn't realistic. Instead, they're focused on legalizing them and making them safer.

REBEKAH MORRIS: It really felt like there was going to be a sea change when Ida hit.

HOGAN: Rebekah Morris, a housing advocate with the Pratt Center for Community Development, says progress on that effort has stalled. This year, the state did set aside money to help landlords bring basement apartments up to code. But a companion bill giving the city permission to legalize those units didn't pass. So most landlords won't be able to tap into that money. Here's Morris again.

MORRIS: Oh, I mean, I'm just completely disappointed at the - just, like, the response and how quickly people seem to forget and move on.

HOGAN: Governor Kathy Hochul supports the basement legalization bill and says she'll push for it again next session. Mayor Eric Adams also supports it but says without it, the city won't start working out the details. In the meantime, he says, some things have changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC ADAMS: Our Office of Emergency Management, they on top of this, and we're going to make sure that we're prepared in this coming season.

HOGAN: There are new emergency warnings for basement residents and an updated flood maps. More sandbags and flood barriers are available. And hundreds of sensors are being added to better monitor flooding in real time. Back in Queens...

NANCY VALERO: (Speaking Spanish).

HOGAN: ...The new tenant of Litzy Gutierrez's old basement apartment says she had no idea about the flood before she moved in.

VALERO: (Speaking Spanish).

HOGAN: Her name is Nancy Valero. Gutierrez warned her shortly after her family unpacked, and they considered moving again but couldn't afford it. She's not sure what she'll do if the apartment floods again. She jokes they'll wear life jackets to sleep in case they wake up swimming.

VALERO: (Speaking Spanish).

HOGAN: "It scares us," she says. For NPR News, I'm Gwynne Hogan in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gwynne Hogan