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New York (AFP)

The deaths of nearly a dozen New Yorkers who were unable to escape their homes in flash floods exposed the dangers of living in the city’s often dangerous basements.

With rents in the Big Apple among the most expensive in the world, underground units provide an affordable option for many low-income residents.

But cramped and sometimes windowless apartments can pose risks, as Wednesday night’s record precipitation painfully highlighted.

Of the 13 people killed in New York City, 11 were found dead in basements, police said, as rapidly rising water levels left them no way out.

The deaths show how the effects of climate change disproportionately impact the poor.

“Among those MOST at risk during flash floods are those who live in unofficial basement dwellings that do not follow the safety codes necessary to save lives,” tweeted lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. .

“These are working class, immigrant and low income individuals and families,” she added.

While it is not yet known whether the deceased lived in illegal basements, the tragedy has renewed attention to the matter.

The New York Times reported that an 86-year-old woman found dead at her home in Queens was living in a building where there had been complaints of illegal basements.

Another victim was a 66-year-old man from Ecuador who died in a windowless room in Brooklyn, the newspaper said.

A 2008 study by the Pratt Center for Community Development found that 114,000 New Yorkers lived in illegal basement apartments, but researchers say the number is now likely much higher.

“The problem is that because these spaces are illegal, because there are big fines associated with them, because the tenants need the space, the owners need the income, nobody wants to talk about it” said Rebekah Morris, who leads basement legalization. work at Pratt, told AFP.

“So it is very, very difficult to assess the actual numbers, but we know anecdotally that they are very high,” she added.

The problem is getting worse as New York’s population grows, but adequate housing fails to keep up.

Over the past decade, the city has added 629,000 residents, bringing its population to more than 8.8 million, according to US Census data released last month.

All but one of the deaths in this week’s storm have been in the borough of Queens, which has a large immigrant population, including many undocumented workers from Central and South America.

– Evacuation plan –

Morris said basement units are “a key part of the housing ecosystem” among immigrant communities, essential workers and older residents, who cannot afford to stay elsewhere.

“There is such a big crisis here. We don’t have enough housing. And so people rent where they can’t have a roof over their heads, which puts them in danger,” said Morris.

Experts want action taken against unscrupulous homeowners who take advantage of low supply and cut corners to maximize profits.

“There must be some responsibility for homeowners who illegally destroy apartments,” Nicole Gelinas, an urban economics expert at the Manhattan Institute think tank, told AFP.

But activists also say basement apartments are part of the solution to New York’s housing problems.

It is not the basement units per se that are problematic, but the illegal units that do not meet basic safety requirements such as proper emergency exit routes, they say.

The Pratt Center is part of a coalition of groups trying to help increase the number of legally recognized underground units in a campaign called BASE, which stands for Basement Apartments Safe for Everyone.

They estimate that there is potential for the creation of 200,000 safe and affordable basement apartments to increase New York’s housing stock.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Friday that the extreme weather conditions caused by climate change meant New York was demanding a “new set of ground rules” for those who live underground.

“We need a plan to evacuate people who live in basements when we have extreme rains and flooding,” he told MSNBC, announcing he would set up a task force to study the issue.

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