“DOB inspectors have confirmed that five of the six properties where New Yorkers tragically lost their lives in flooding were illegally converted cellars and basements,” said DOB Commissioner Melanie La Rocca. “Our team is tirelessly conducting inspections at thousands of properties in the five boroughs following Wednesday’s storm, and we will continue to do everything possible to keep New Yorkers safe in their homes.”

The department has received reports of storm damage to more than 2,700 properties across the city, and agency employees are carrying out safety inspections at the scene, La Rocca said.

Illegal residential conversions occur when apartments are created without first obtaining the necessary approvals and permits. Unauthorized basement and cellar units, in particular, come with risks, including issues with exit, unsafe gas and electrical systems, and a lack of light and ventilation, according to the building department.

The number of 311 complaints the department has received regarding alleged illegal conversions has declined steadily over the years, from around 20,000 in 2018 to 17,000 in 2019 to 12,000 last year. As of Friday, the agency had received about 8,100 such complaints this year.

De Blasio announced a pilot program in 2018 that called on the city to spend $ 5.7 million to upgrade existing basement apartments in East New York, Brooklyn. He estimated at the time that the program could lead to the creation or preservation of 5,000 apartments across the city. Officials, however, slashed funding for the program by 92% last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to The City, an online news site.

The NYC Base Campaign, a coalition advocating the legalization of city basement apartments, has estimated that there are more than 300,000 such units in the five boroughs that could be converted to legal housing.

The city plans to develop new policies to warn basement residents of impending storms, the mayor said on radio last week. He said it was “one of the thorniest and most difficult problems” he had encountered.

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It would take a lot of work to bring illegal apartments up to standard. Most of the people who live there are undocumented immigrants who are afraid to ask for government help, and the city lacks the capacity to suddenly provide new housing for its current residents. There are probably at least 100,000 people in 50,000 of these apartments, de Blasio said.

“I think things like identifying all the apartments, finding a way to prospect [tenants] with community groups so they have trusted voices in the community speaking to them, especially when there are dangerous events like this coming up – using cell phone alerts, using evacuation mandatory door to door with first responders – we can protect people from the worst situations, ”the mayor said,“ while somehow trying to find a broader solution to the situation ”.

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