The Housing Crisis Led Them to Basement Apartments. Climate Change Flooded Them Out.


Matthew Bautista made his home two levels below ground in an apartment building in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood.

The two-bedroom basement apartment, which he shares with his husband and their two cats and two dogs, has windows in every room and a direct exit to the sidewalk. He said they love living there — except during heavy rains. It wasn’t unusual, Bautista said, to watch sediment and sludge gurgle up into the bathtub or for the water level to rise alarmingly in their toilet. Then Tropical Storm Elsa hit the city last July. Water started coming in from every direction into Bautista’s home: the toilet, the sinks, the tub, the front door, the streetside door, the ceiling, and two utility closets.

“I’m running around, getting cats into carriers, putting the dogs on leashes, while trying to sop up the water that all of a sudden is coming in,” Bautista said. He spent the rest of the night cleaning up the sewage all over the house. A thought later entered his mind: “Oh my god, is this one of those deathtraps?” Bautista determined that during future floods, his household would immediately seek shelter in the lobby.

Weeks after Elsa, Hurricane Henri made landfall in Rhode Island, saturating the ground across the region. Days later, Hurricane Ida — a Category 4 storm fueled by warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico and the worst hurricane to strike Louisiana since Katrina — made its way to the northeast. Ida killed more than 90 people across the US, including 11 people in New York City basement apartments.

As an increasing number of intense storms batters the country, more Americans face the risk of basement flooding as the housing affordability crisis pushes renters across the income spectrum below ground. As prices hit new highs, officials around the country are looking to convert more basements into housing. New York City estimates it already has 150,000 people living in at least 50,000 basement units. Last year, Chicago’s Affordable Dwelling Units Ordinance went into effect, legalizing the creation of basement and attic apartments for the first time in 65 years. Boston has also included basement conversions as part of efforts to address affordability. So have lawmakers in Utah, Arlington, Virginia, and Denver. Bills have been introduced in Atlanta and Washington state.

But the consequences of extreme weather events are becoming dire for renters of basement apartments, including illegal units that aren’t designed for people to escape hazards like flooding and fire. Year after year, floods displace basement tenants around the country — from Seattle to Minnesota, Missouri to Utah, West Virginia to Cleveland — and the risk is rising as heavy rain events become more common. FEMA estimates 13 million Americans live in a 100-year flood zone, while other estimates go as high as 41 million people.

Over the last three decades, an average of 85 people have died in floods each year, making it the second-most deadly weather hazard after heat. In 2021, 145 people died in floods — around half had been driving, and one-quarter were at home. Survivors receive little help from landlords or government recovery programs, and those in illegal units sometimes can’t access public relief funds because their landlords refuse to apply in order to avoid calling attention to the violation.

“We’re going to see more of these heavy rain events, and we’re not prepared for them,” said Bernadette Woods Placky, chief meteorologist at the group Climate Central.

Eight months after the storm, Bautista’s apartment still has warped floors and stained ceilings. “There is no body of information that says if you live in a basement apartment, and have suffered flooding, and you want to get out of your apartment, here’s what you do,” Bautista said. He recalled contacting the city’s 311 Tenant Hotline, which “had nothing about flooded apartments” and little guidance for people whose apartments aren’t rent stabilized or part of a housing program, so his questions remain unanswered: “What are my rights? Can I break my lease? Does my landlord have to move me into a comparable apartment?”

Sateesh Nori, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society in New York City, told BuzzFeed News that basement tenants can bring a case to get their flooded apartment repaired, argue that they’re not obligated to pay rent because they can’t use the apartment, or break the lease and argue they didn’t get the fair use. Aside from going to court, however, tenants have no easy options if their landlords are unresponsive.

Bautista and his husband plan to move, he said, and won’t be considering basement units. But alternatives are limited: After rents rebounded to a record high, two-bedroom units in the city are now being leased for a median of $3,400, up 30% year over year and $700 higher than their current basement apartment, according to real estate listing company Zumper.

It is difficult to quantify how many basement units already exist across America. Government entities like the Census Bureau and Freddie Mac don’t track them; neither do real estate companies like Zillow and Apartment List, nor does the National Association of Realtors.

The universe of basement apartments is varied: There are legal units and ones that are off the books; ones that have windows, and others that are fully underground with no sunlight; some are leased to boarders with low incomes, while others are priced for middle-income households; there are basements that have ways to get out in an emergency, and basements that don’t.

In 2015, Roger Quan moved into a spacious but illegal basement apartment in Queens. It had flooded several times in the past, but never like when Hurricane Ida hit. Quan, who is Chinese American and grew up in a basement in New York City, was home with his fiancé and toddler when water gushed through the toilet, the utility room, and the backyard door. After his fiancé and child found shelter upstairs, Quan rushed back down to save their cat and the animals he uses in performances as a magician — the rabbits, doves, fish, and rats. Only some of them survived. The apartment filled with more than 3 feet of water. Almost nothing was salvageable, including the furniture, clothing, electronics, and baby pictures. “It’s all gone,” he said. “Everything.”


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