The Equity Factor

New York Officials Want to Loosen Regs on Illegal Conversions

Brad Lander and other housing advocates in New York City are working to lighten restrictions on housing regulations.

Credit: Design Acts

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New York City officials are aiming to loosen regulations on illegal housing conversions. For years, landlords have rented out basement or cellar units to families from Brooklyn to the Bronx, often at comparatively cheap prices. And the Department of Buildings issues more than 4,400 violations annually for converted units that aren’t up to health or safety code, according to the Times. But some lawmakers say that it’s time to lift restrictions.

Brad Lander, a longtime housing advocate and city councilmember who represents Park Slope, is working on legislation for new zoning and building codes that would allow such conversions. “Micro-units are the high-end version of the basement units,” he told the Times. “There are a lot of units that are perfectly safe that can’t be made legal under current rules.”

Micro-units, or apartments smaller than the 450-square-foot minimum for studios, have long been a favorite of progressive housing enthusiasts looking to solve New York’s affordable housing dilemma. Mariana Ionova dug deep into single room occupancy units and illegal conversions in a June Forefront story calling these micro-units “an entrepreneur’s answer to the affordable housing crisis.” Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been a champion of micro-units and a pilot program is set for 2015.

There are obviously safety concerns for illegal conversions and you don’t want to turn neighborhoods into all-out slums. But as Lander noted, many units are perfectly safe. If the city can figure out how to regulate these conversions — and make it happen without miles of red tape for landlords — it could be a boon for the housing stock and potential tenants.

Renting out a basement apartment not only gives landlords some extra cash to foot their mortgages, but also gives New York families a much-needed affordable apartment. And, as the Times found, it gives these tenants an opportunity to save some cash for a mortgage of their own someday.

Now, this sort of tenant-landlord relationship is obviously the ideal. There are a host of other problems that would also need solving, like infrastructure upgrades and trash pickup for the increase in population. But if lawmakers can find a way to legalize a portion of illegal conversions — a 2008 study found the housing “underground” consisted of over 114,000 units — it can put a dent in the city’s lack of affordable housing stock and give local businesses extra cashflow from the uptick in residents.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Bill Bradley is a writer and reporter living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Deadspin, GQ, and Vanity Fair, among others.

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Tags: new york cityaffordable housingequity factormichael bloomberg

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