As Flooding Increases, Chicago Looks To Make Basement Housing Safer

Chicago has experienced more frequent and severe storms in recent decades, putting immigrants and low income Chicagoans living in basement units at increased risk of flooding.

(Illustration by Jennifer Chavez / Borderless Magazine)

This story is part of a collaborative series from the Institute for Nonprofit News, Planet Detroit, Tostada Magazine, Energy News Network, The Land, and Borderless Magazine examining climate resilience across the Great Lakes. This reporting was made possible with support from the Joyce Foundation.

Daniela* was relieved when she finally got an apartment on the North Side of Chicago in 2017. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, she had been homeless for two years, and had worked with a case manager from a mental health nonprofit for a long time to find a landlord that would accept her Section 8 housing vouchers.

But when her basement apartment started regularly flooding, her dream home suddenly became a nightmare. Almost every time it rained, she was up to her knees in water.

“I had to use buckets to throw the water out of my apartment,” says Daniela.

With warming temperatures due to climate change, Chicago has experienced more frequent and severe storms in recent decades, leaving Chicagoans at increased risk of flooding. A 2019 study from the National Academy of Sciences showed that Chicago ranked high in total federal payouts and loans to address flooding and flood damage. Despite Chicago’s inland status, the area’s spending was surpassed only by coastal regions that regularly experience hurricanes.

Chicagoans who live in basement apartments, like Daniela, are particularly at risk of losing their valuables and having health issues due to flooding. Basement apartments, which are not always legal, are popular options for lower income residents and people from immigrant communities in Chicago.

“We consider our city to be a sanctuary city, but at the same time, a lot of the living conditions don’t hold up,” Daniela says.

Now, Chicago aldermen and housing advocates are working to change laws to protect these vulnerable residents.

September Supercell Storm Highlights Dangers

As climate change intensifies, existing infrastructure in Chicago is being taxed beyond the limits of what it was originally designed to handle. Not just rainfall, but increased precipitation in the form of storms, snowfall and lake-related flooding will continue to pose a threat to people’s homes.

While flooding has increasingly been a problem for Chicagoans for several decades now, this September’s supercell storm made the dangers of flooding very apparent.

A supercell storm is a unique kind of thunderstorm which can persist for hours and cause extreme conditions like flash flooding and 100 mph winds. These storms are the precursors to tornadoes, and climate change is increasing the chances that weather events like September’s storm can occur.

Chicago’s September storm flooded streets, caused sewers to back up and manhole covers to blow off of their positioned spots. After the city received nearly 5 inches of rain in a matter of hours, 2,500 residents in the Northwest Side neighborhoods of Portage Park, Edgewater, Rogers Park, West Ridge and Albany Park reported basement flooding. The storm’s impact lasted far longer than the initial downpour, straining resources and creating problems in these communities.

Carina Hoyer, who lives in a rowhouse in Albany Park, says the rate at which the flooding happened was unlike anything she’d seen before.

“The water was coming out of our floor drains so fast, it was like, we just walked back upstairs. There was literally nothing that we possibly could have done to even slow down or mitigate [the flooding] at that point, it was just chaos,” says Hoyer.

Adding to the challenge of flooding, the neighborhoods hit by September’s storm are home to large populations of immigrants and non-English speaking residents. In Albany Park, for example, 60% of residents do not speak English at home, making receiving information about the danger of flooding and what to do afterwards more difficult.

Flooding occurs in the basement of Camila Pechous’ home in the Portage Park neighborhood of Chicago, Ill., Sept. 11, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Camila Pechous)

Who Is Most At Risk?

Immigrants in Chicago and beyond who continually have issues trying to secure and keep long-term housing tend to be drawn to basement apartments because they are less expensive and usually have landlords who have minimal requirements to rent the apartments.

“Generally the housing situation in Chicago is difficult. Immigrants especially face a difficult time because they lack the credit history to be able to choose what housing situation suits them most, added on top are the issues related to price and availability,” says Maya Atassi, director of operations at the Syrian Community Network, which helps newly arrived immigrants and refugees find housing.

Often, the number of people living in basement apartments is well above any occupancy limits, but apartments like these are part of a larger informal housing market that spans numerous large cities like Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. In each case, most of these arrangements are utilized by immigrants with few affordable choices for housing who are forced to make do.

“[Basement apartments] tend to be focused in areas that have a high number of immigrants whether they be from Asia or Latin America or other countries,” says Laura Garcia from the Metropolitan Tenant Organization. Outside of Chicago, an NBC News report found that nearly all of the people who died in basements after Hurricane Ida were Asian immigrants to the U.S.

Garcia’s organization fields calls from residents who are having trouble with their housing and says that flooding “is a constant issue, even before the supercell.”

“We do get calls about basements flooding [or] their sewage backup,” Garcia says. “When there’s severe snowfall, sometimes that water will come in right into the unit as it’s melting.”

What Are Some of the Risks?

Flooding isn’t just a hazard when water first enters the apartment. In the aftermath of a storm, one of the most common hazards that pops up after flooding is mold, according to Emma Anselin, a pediatrician at Lurie Children’s Hospital. Not only is the presence of mold problematic, but many people may be allergic to mold and not even realize it. Mold has been linked to increased chances of asthma developing in children and can agitate existing respiratory issues.

“After flooding, when there’s water damage to the home, and then mold grows on top of that water damage, [people] may notice chronic cough and congestion and difficulty breathing [and] headaches, all because they’re allergic,” says Anselin.

Both Hoyer and Daniela dealt with mold after flooding. Daniela remembers her brother, who has asthma, having trouble breathing whenever he visited.

“When he would come to visit, he would be like ‘it just feels stuffy in here,’ even though I would have all the windows open,” Daniela says.

Carina Hoyer’s damaged belongings in front of her rowhouse in the Albany Park neighborhood of Chicago, Ill., September 2022. (Photo courtesy of Carina Hoyer)

Navigating Challenges

It can be daunting to try to navigate housing situations with a basement apartment, especially because the folks that live there are usually low-income and rent-burdened.

Certain organizations are trying to tackle the issue from several angles. Doctors are attempting to provide notes to landlords to help fix the issue of mold. And legislators in Chicago, New York and other cities are working to legalize basement apartments in an effort to regulate them.

In 2020, Ald. Michael Rodriguez, whose ward covers Archer Heights, Little Village and North Lawndale, introduced the Additional Dwelling Unit Ordinance, which helps homeowners bring their homes up to code so they can rent out the basement units and supplement their income. While the program launched in five pilot areas in May 2021, legislators are now looking to expand throughout Chicago. The ordinance is set to be discussed at a future joint session of the City Council’s zoning and housing committees.

Current legislation doesn’t address flooding in basement apartments, but it does provide funding for landlords to help bring their apartments up to code, which helps renters live in safe apartments, according to Rodriguez. Some improvements to help prevent damage during and after a flood are a sump pump, risers for furniture and waterproof drywall.

“The program allows for these units to — and there’s funding to — bring these [apartments] up to code in compliance with the city law,” Rodriguez says.

Housing advocates are also trying to increase accessibility to resources and information on what to do if your home floods.

“I think there always can be better dissemination of information around what to do in these types of situations. Especially in different languages,” says Scott Jaburek from the Albany Park Defense Network, which helps immigrants on the North Side of Chicago.

Jaburek says that the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and the city’s Water Management Department both have a role to play in the interim, by helping to educate renters about practical ways they can manage flooding in the aftermath of a storm, such as how to clear water from a basement apartment, how to navigate electrical appliances and outlets, and what to watch out for after the water is gone.

How Can We Prepare?

Jaburek also says it is important for renters to know their rights and seek out help from tenants’ rights organizations to see what their landlord owes them in the wake of a storm.

Renters should also should try to call 311 to clear out their sewer line prior to any storms and try to purchase renter’s insurance, if possible, since it might be the best way to ensure their property inside the apartment can be accounted for and they can be compensated in the wake of an extreme weather event.

If a renter has renters’ insurance a loss of use policy can help them recover funds to stay in another place and additionally recover from any damage flooding does, and any damage should be thoroughly documented. Local neighborhood groups or their alderman’s office can help neighbors get their landlord’s attention to help fix any issues after flooding.

Basement apartment residents should pay close attention to their health after the flooding and also pay close attention if they have asthma and go see a health care provider if they experience symptoms. Health care providers can also play another important role in advocating for improving their patients’ living circumstances. Doctors can provide letters to their patients’ landlords if they feel the problem is stemming from the patients’ home and this solution has proven effective. A 2021 study found that of people who submitted doctor’s letters to their landlords stemming from poor housing conditions, 89% of landlords took action to fix the problem and 74% of landlords fixed the issue after receiving the letter.

As government officials and community organizers try to tackle the problem, MTO’s Garcia stresses that the underlying issue is ensuring that immigrant communities have access to safe and affordable housing which can bolster their health instead of endangering it.

“Everyone, regardless of immigration status, regardless of income levels, deserves to live in safe and decent housing. There’s no reason that folks should be living in subpar conditions because we know that housing is directly correlated to health,” says Garcia.

Lost Memories

For Daniela, the impact of years of flooding has been devastating.

The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Daniela treasured the photos and trinkets that had been passed on through the generations but lost them in one of the many flooding events that her apartment experienced from 2017 to 2019.

“Those could not be replaced. Or, you know, refurbished or fixed,” says Daniela.

Daniela repeatedly contacted her landlord to address the damage. It was only after her caseworker got involved that her landlord took action to hire a cleaning crew to deep clean the apartment, which had mud and debris after the flood waters subsided.

Now that she’s in a different apartment, she hopes that no one else has to go through what she experienced.

“How can someone get ahead if they’re dealing with flooding issues, year after year?” says Daniela.

*Daniela’s name has been changed to protect her safety and privacy.

Siri Chilukuri is a Chicago-based freelance journalist focused on climate change, cities and culture.

Follow Siri

Tags: chicagofloodingsafe housing

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