Only three acres in central Queens are designed to handle stormwater runoff, but to more effectively prevent flooding, the region would need about 120 acres of green infrastructure, according to the report.
Nearly a year after floodwaters from Hurricane Ida killed 11 New Yorkers in basement apartments, the Regional Plan Association (RPA) is calling on the city to take a number of steps to reduce the risk of precipitation, such as turning parking spaces into absorbent garden plots to capture runoff.
The nonprofit planning report, ‘Preventing Another Ida’, focused on the central Queens neighborhoods of Jackson Heights, Woodside, Elmhurst, Corona and Rego Park, where there are more than 40,000 buildings with units of basement, many of which are rented out to new immigrants. Yorkers.
Of the 11 New York residents who drowned in basement apartments during Ida, 10 lived in Queens, including three in Woodside, one in Elmhurst and another in Corona. Across all five boroughs, unregulated basement units are a vital, though generally illegal, source of housing, with more than 100,000 New Yorkers living in unlicensed underground homes, according to city estimates.
RPA Senior Planner Marcel Negret, one of the report’s authors, led a tour of the Corona area and highlighted the issues that lead to extreme stormwater runoff as well as possible solutions to reduce flooding.
“We chose this geography given the concentration of fatalities and flood losses that occurred during Ida,” Negret said. He showed reporters a curbside garden designed to absorb rainwater, a vacant lot where he urged the city to develop green infrastructure, and the Corona Golf playground, where an underground retention system – designed to temporarily store runoff underground – is in the design phase. At Corona Plaza, Negret pointed to what he called a missed opportunity to improve stormwater management on the large swath of roadway.
The RPA report recommends covering local roads with green infrastructure, such as absorbent rain gardens and permeable pavement. Only three acres in central Queens are designed to handle stormwater runoff, but to more effectively prevent flooding, the region would need about 120 acres of green infrastructure, according to the report.
“We need to start looking at extreme weather events not just as climate change issues, but also as public health crises that affect low-income communities the most,” said RPA’s President and CEO. , Tom Wright, in a press release.
The report also urges state lawmakers to legalize secondary suites — additional apartments, like basements, beyond what local zoning rules allow. This regulatory relief would make it easier for New York residents to bring existing basement apartments out of the shadows and bring them up to code. This means installing a second means of escape, watertight walls and a seven-foot ceiling, according to city rules.
With Ida’s birthday on September 1 fast approaching, it’s still unclear if a single basement apartment has been brought up to code and legalized in the past 11 months. The city’s Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) department did not provide a figure when contacted July 12 and again on Monday.
A 2019 pilot program to help landlords legalize basement apartments saw its budget cut a year later as COVID-19 and other economic factors strained city finances. Construction of the first six basement apartments included in the East New York basement pilot program is expected to finally begin this fall, said program director Ryan Chavez of the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation.
Chavez attributed the delays to high costs, onerous administrative requirements and “a very, very difficult approval process” through the Department of Buildings.
He said he doubted any landowners outside of the pilot program had started working on legally converting their basement units because of the high costs. He estimated the construction and approval process would cost about $250,000 per unit, mostly because owners have to bring all of their buildings up to code, not just basements.
Mayor Eric Adams’ housing plan references the pilot program in East New York, calling it “a testing ground for potential strategies to facilitate basement conversion policies and programs across the city. town”. Still, to bring conversions to scale — or at least double digits — the city will need state action, the plan notes.
In the absence of state policy to more easily legalize basement apartments, the city has developed a heavy rain warning system and launched awareness campaigns that warn residents of the dangers of staying in their homes. housing during storms. The housing plan suggests tapping into informal networks to publicize upcoming storms, including Los Deliveristas and app-based delivery services.
Adams also said his administration would begin a census of basement apartments, which his predecessor Bill de Blasio pledged to do following the devastation in Ida. But it’s not an easy task when landlords and tenants are reluctant to report illegal conditions.
In the meantime, Chavez said, tenants and landlords are on their own to make their vital but still illegal basements safer.
“It’s kind of a Wild West when it comes to basement apartments,” he said. “And the city and state have not stepped in to bring order to this area.”