When Mildred Velez was looking for her first home in 1965, she moved to a modest location in the Bronx because there was a basement for her stepmother. Years later, after her mother-in-law died, Ms Velez rented the accommodation to a disabled woman and then to a retired law enforcement officer.
The spacious apartment – with multiple windows and three entrances and exits, including to a back yard – was an ideal space for anyone looking for an affordable home in one of the most expensive cities in the country.
But one day in 2018, a city inspector showed up at Ms Velez’s front door and broke startling news: City regulations prohibited anyone from living in the basement. She was breaking the law.
The violations have plunged Ms. Velez, 90 – who still rents her basement – into a quagmire of fines and bureaucracy that has lasted for years. It has also made her an emblem of one of New York’s most pressing housing issues: how to deal with the tens of thousands of illegal basement homes that remain an intractable feature of the city’s housing stock.
These problems were highlighted in September, when the remnants of Hurricane Ida killed 11 people in underground homes, most of them illegal, prompting calls for a better way to legalize and regulate houses.
There is no reliable data on basements and cellars that are illegally rented in New York City. Some can pose deadly threats to the people who live there – as illustrated by the deaths during Ida where people drowned and had no way to escape because there was not enough exits. But others may only be illegal because they run counter to a tangle of technical and possibly outdated city regulations.
Homes aren’t just important sources of income for working-class and low-income New Yorkers like Ms. Velez. They are also essential in addressing the shortage of affordable housing in the city.
Yet Ms. Velez’s case shows how difficult it can be under current law to find a solution.
Its violations, which stemmed from an anonymous complaint, appear to focus on documents filed over 50 years ago that mistakenly classified the unit as a cellar. Cellars are underground units where at least half of the unit is below sidewalk level and can never be legally rented. But Ms. Velez’s unit is only a fraction of a foot below sidewalk level.
According to an estimate provided to Ms Velez, fixing the paperwork would involve at least $ 6,500 for an architect and thousands of others in engineering and other work, which Ms Velez said she could not afford. Even if it could, then it would not be likely to meet other requirements for basement units, such as having enough parking space.
Ms Velez said her only other income was Social Security and she needed the rental income from the basement – she charges $ 800 a month – to support herself. She therefore continues to accumulate fines on what she has maintained as a habitable apartment for decades. City records show that as of October 6, she was facing a fine of $ 18,000.
“If that didn’t work in 52 years, don’t you think something might have gone wrong? ” she said. “I’m not asking them to give me anything. I’m just asking them to give me some peace of mind.
But the city’s building department maintains Ms Velez must stop renting the basement unit or obtain permits to change her papers and legalize the apartment. These permits would be needed for the city to ensure that qualified people have done construction work on the unit and that it is a safe place to live.
Andrew Rudansky, a spokesperson for the agency, said Ms Velez “has repeatedly received detailed advice” from the department “on how to correct the conditions of violation in her basement.”
“To date, the owner has not taken the necessary steps to correct the violations,” he said.
Jessica Katz, executive director of Citizens Housing and Planning Council, a non-profit housing group, said Ms. Velez was “caught up in this web of all the regulations around basements.”
Ms Katz tried to help Ms Velez find a solution, but said her situation shows the need to relax the city’s requirements for some housing and offer financial support for legalization.
“We are failing to provide owners with a toolkit on how to know and understand what their obligations are, as well as the tools and resources to comply with those obligations,” she said.
Efforts are being made to address these issues. A bill from the state legislature would allow basement units to evade some onerous regulations, including eliminating parking requirements, and would order the state to find a way to help pay for charges. renovations.
Ms. Velez’s case does not reflect all of the issues related to illegal basement and cellar homes. Several of the apartments where people died in Ida, for example, had only one way to get in or out.
Yet city officials have grappled with the problem for decades: The number of low-income New Yorkers far exceeds the number of affordable housing, prompting many to seek refuge in cheaper basements. And for many low-income or older New Yorkers, basements are a crucial source of income.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who estimated that there are at least 50,000 illegal units, pledged to find a way to legalize them. But the city’s only serious attempt, a pilot program in Brooklyn, largely failed amid pandemic-related budget cuts, and Mr de Blasio last month expressed skepticism about the possibility of a realistic solution.
Ms Velez, who was renting an apartment in another part of the Bronx, said she would never have moved to Throgs Neck with her husband without the basement. And she remains adamant that for decades there has been no reason to believe this is not a safe place to live.
The first tenant in the mid-1990s after her mother-in-law died was a disabled woman who relied on Section 8 housing vouchers, she said. Federal authorities inspected the basement and found it acceptable, Ms. Velez said.
The current tenant, who has lived in the apartment since 2005, declined to speak officially because it is a retired law enforcement officer who said he fears retaliation from the criminals he had once apprehended.
But he said he had no problem with Ms. Velez or the apartment other than a few inches of water that flooded the basement during Ida. He said he first heard about the basement from Ms Velez’s neighbors across the street babysitting her brother’s children and thought it would be affordable and convenient.
He got closer to Ms. Velez and plays dominoes with her every Saturday. He said he had considered moving because of the issues with the city, but the basement is comfortable and he and Ms. Velez have become dependent on each other.
Ms. Velez, who no longer has any family living nearby, acknowledges that the living situation has been harmonious. Rent payments are crucial, but the tenant also helps with housework and groceries.
“My tenant downstairs is like I have a son downstairs,” she said.
But unpaid fines could lead to a lien being placed on her property, and the fear of losing her home stresses Ms. Velez.
Every 90 days, she receives a letter reminding her that she has not addressed the violations arising from the 2018 complaint. And last month, a new complaint was filed anonymously against her.