Most homes where residents were found dead in New York City after Hurricane Ida hit the area have been illegally renovated into basements, city officials said on Friday.
An analysis that was done by the city’s Department of Buildings after the massive floods on Wednesday (1) showed that five of the six structures were illegal – and it was also the location where 10 of the city’s 13 victims were found.
The victims include a 2-year-old boy who was found dead with his parents in his makeshift home, authorities said.
“We know that basement apartments create a whole set of unique challenges,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said in his remarks on Friday. “Now we’re going to move – going forward – to people who live in underground apartments, specific messages, specific alerts on cell phones, telling people about the vulnerabilities they face in these types of events.”
Illegal conversions are defined by the city as an additional room that was built without proper permits from municipal authorities, according to the Department of Buildings. They often have common features, such as no escape route that can be used in emergencies, shoddy work with gas or electricity, and poor construction in areas without light or ventilation, according to the building department.
Annetta Seecharran, executive director of Chhaya Community Development Corporation, a housing advocacy group, says people often live in these basements in illegal conversions because they can’t afford other, more expensive options.
“They are often the most vulnerable New Yorkers,” Seecharran said. “Often it’s immigrant families… It could be an elderly member of the family.”
“Usually they are people who cannot afford any other option,” she added.
Mayor Announces New Alert System
De Blasio said the city will now reach residents who live in illegal basements before the 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 underground apartments, but “there is more to gather.”
“We need to have a clear database to work with and certainly start by getting to know the areas, which we know where they prevail,” said the mayor. “So, this is some of the work we have to perfect now. It wasn’t something we thought about before, when you thought of evacuation during a storm. Now that’s what we have to do.”
The objective, according to the mayor, is to avoid storms that become dangerous and deadly before the villagers have a chance to escape. This new strategy includes knocking on residents’ doors to alert them of the arrival of a major storm and sending emergency alerts to cell phones.
The protocols come after the city works to recover from the storm’s impact.
City authorities have so far towed more than 1,300 cars left behind by drivers when the flood of water got too high, said emergency management commissioner John Scrivani, while workers also dried up hospitals, government buildings and homes.
Across the city, there were reports of more than 1,000 buildings damaged, Scrivani said. City Department of Building officials are conducting inspections of these properties across the city, Building Commissioner Melanie E. La Rocca said in a statement.
‘We cannot continue to close our eyes’
There is no clear number of how many illegal apartments there are in the city.
The Department of Buildings has received more than 8,000 complaints of suspected illegal conversions this year, according to its data. They received over 11,000 complaints in 2020.
“The time has come to address this issue, to talk about the underground apartments,” Seecharran said with the advocacy group. “We cannot continue to close our eyes.”
She added that landlords can also rely on money coming from people living in these illegal conversions, making the difficult situation even worse.
“It’s literally about being willing to create a program that encourages homeowners and doesn’t penalize them to raise their hand and say, ‘Hey, I have an illegal basement, I really want to advertise it. If people can do it safely, without fear of being penalized, without fear of being fined, they will do it. ”
De Blasio said the city tried a pilot program to turn illegal conversions into code, but the effort made little progress and proved expensive, he said.
The plan now is to work on the idea that asking for help will not lead to deportation or eviction, said the mayor. In addition, the authorities will work to get a proper count of how many illegal structures exist in the city and then work to bring them in in accordance with the code. The city estimates that there are about 50,000 illegal underground apartments in New York City.
But in the meantime, authorities will work to let residents know they can call 911 without fear of reaction.
“If you are in any danger, call 911 and never ask if your documentation status will be asked for. Will not be. Never ask yourself if there will be any threat to the place where you live. If you call because you’re in danger, we want to save lives,” de Blasio said. “We are not here to make people vulnerable.”
(Translated text. Read the original in English here.)