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Thread: Basement Apartments

  1. #1

    Default Basement Apartments

    February 25, 2004

    Be It Ever So Low, the Basement Is Often Home

    By DAVID W. CHEN

    At least once every day, Pura Fernandez makes her way down the rickety stairs to visit her disabled mother in the windowless world that her family has proudly called home for two decades, a storage basement in a five-story walk-up, not far from Times Square.

    If she turns right at the bottom of the stairs, she heads toward her old bedroom, where she grew up listening to the currents of sewage from the neighbors upstairs, sloshing inside an exposed pipe. If she turns left, she heads toward the boiler room, past the garbage bags and the storage containers, and underneath the pipes that doubled as the asbestos-padded monkey bars of her youth.

    "It was very makeshift," said Ms. Fernandez, 29. "Before I came here, I had heard from other people that — ooh, New York City, that's America, and everyone does well, and you live in a high-rise. But of course, I found that not to be the case."

    The vertical nature of New York City has long helped define its image, with families stacked on top of each other and penthouse apartments reaching the clouds. But for generations, tens of thousands of people have made do with another New York reality — the basement apartment — and they literally climb out of the ground to enter the city that is always on top of them.

    There are building superintendents who have lived below ground for decades. There are young artists who are crammed into dark, illegal dormitories. There are secretaries and flight attendants, teachers and musicians, all trying to eke out a living, all trying to find the cheapest digs possible.

    For some, the basement represents a stopgap measure, a housing option of last resort. For others, they offer a gamble to live in illegal, unsafe cubicles, sliced up by criminal landlords to maximize tenancy in only hundreds of square feet of space.

    But for still others, the basement apartment has a quirky and quiet charm that can actually grow on a person, month after month, year after year. Either way, the very notion that people are willing to tolerate such subterranean conditions is, in the end, another testament to a distinctly New York brand of urban adaptability.

    "I prefer the basement," said Maria Fernandez, Pura's 59-year-old mother, who has rheumatoid arthritis. She is a sentimental pack rat whose apartment is cluttered with rocking chairs, family photographs and homemade clothes. "It's more comfortable. It's my home."

    In 2002, about 110,000 people lived in 45,000 basement units in New York City, 60 percent of them in Brooklyn and Queens, according to the city's Housing and Vacancy Survey. But the true numbers are higher, housing groups say, because of the often temporary nature of the apartments.

    In the annals of New York, underground dwellings may be best associated with the kind of squalor documented most notably by the photographer Jacob Riis, and depicted most recently by Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York." The most atrocious conditions existed in the 1850's and 1860's, when the city's 20,000 or so cellars, crammed with new immigrants, became a breeding ground for cholera and other diseases, said Steve Long, vice president for collections and education at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

    These days, basements are technically defined as places that are more than 50 percent above ground, and cellars as places that are less than 50 percent above ground. Most cellars are illegal. But many basements can be legally converted for residential use if they meet requirements related to windows, exits, ventilation and other measures.

    In Queens, most of these units — walk-downs, if you will — can be found in single- or two-family houses that have illegally converted the recreation room. With rents that are as little as half of anything above ground, these apartments are especially attractive to poor immigrants with a high threshold for inconvenience, and vital to landlords who say they are pinched by rising taxes, insurance, mortgages and other costs.

    The story of Richard Rye, a 43-year-old musician and aquarium designer in Forest Hills, Queens, is not unusual. He has lived alone for the last 10 years in a $700-a-month basement that has three tiny windows, poor ventilation and a wet bar functioning as a kitchen.

    But when neighbors complained about Mr. Rye's upstairs residents attracting huge crowds on the weekends, inspectors came, and they stumbled upon Mr. Rye's illegal apartment. So now, Mr. Rye is facing eviction in housing court, and is bitter about his twist of fate.

    "I feel disenfranchised," he said.

    In Brooklyn, many former factories in places like Williamsburg and Greenpoint have given birth to basement units that have been popular with artists.

    Jonathan Schipper, a 30-year-old sculptor, grew up in California on a mountaintop with views of the Sierra Nevada. His art school classmate, Aaron McMasters, 34, grew up on Vashon Island, which is in Puget Sound between Seattle and Tacoma, Wash. For the past year, they have been roommates in a former funeral home in Greenpoint, in a basement that used to hold the coffins.

    There are neither windows nor views.

    The $900-a-month space does not lack for heat, thanks to a powerful radiant heater suspended from the 12-foot-high ceiling that the two refer to, jokingly, as "our sun." On the other hand, they have no clue as to what the weather is like unless they actually go outside. But their apartment does afford them the ability to eavesdrop on passers-by on the sidewalks above.

    "You basically hear all of humanity on the street," Mr. McMasters said.

    Not far away, in a former factory near the Williamsburg Bridge, Benjamin Maddox, a 25-year-old artist who makes soap carvings, stuffed animals and customized sneakers, has paid up to $500 a month to live underground with seven other people, split into five rooms.

    His bedroom is on the other side of the boiler room, and he runs several fans at all times to stir the air. He keeps a light on constantly and sets three alarm clocks so he won't oversleep.

    Still, the shared hardships have translated into a gritty texture that is one part "Real World," one part "Survivor." To heighten the intrigue, there is even a resident hermit, nicknamed Mystery Ted, who always wears his headphones, never says a word and has been down there for at least six years.

    "I don't think we'd be able to survive without a certain sense of camaraderie," said Mr. Maddox, who hopes to move soon to Bedford-Stuyvesant. "But I've served my sentence in the dungeon, and it's time to move out."

    Not every underground apartment is as bleak, of course. Some have a surreal charm all their own.

    Take the underground chamber of Kein Cross, 42, the longtime owner of Kein, on West 19th Street in Manhattan, which sells home furnishings and personal care products. Almost two decades ago, Mr. Cross began cleaning out the basement, which had been a restaurant, and designing a modern and Parisian-flavored 600-square-foot one-bedroom apartment.

    There is a room nicknamed "The Grotto," 60 feet long and 3 feet wide, with chandeliers, palm fronds and shellacked stone walls. There is, too, a climate-control system.

    "It's like a cocoon," said Mr. Cross, who grew up on a dairy farm in Bentonville, Ark. "There can be a nuclear blast upstairs, and you wouldn't know it."

    Then again, some people live in the basement because they have little economic choice but to stay. Such is the case with many building superintendents, who typically pay no rent for a basement apartment.

    Angel Ortega, a 37-year-old who lives in Hunts Point, the Bronx, is a second-generation superintendent, basement-born and basement-bred. Mr. Ortega is proud of what he does and has worked hard to decorate his apartment. But he is also loath to let his son, who lives with his mother elsewhere in the Bronx, linger inside for long stretches.

    Pura Fernandez, the Dominican immigrant who played on asbestos-padded pipes, grew up as the child of a superintendent, in a windowless, illegal basement bathed in fluorescent light. Saying that she often felt depressed and was embarrassed to invite friends over, she turned to her schoolwork as an outlet, graduating from Stuyvesant High School and gaining admission to New York University.

    She now lives one flight up, in a small one-bedroom apartment, with her fiancι and infant son. Last year, a new management company took over her building and began eviction proceedings against the family, partly because of the basement's illegality. Then, two months ago, her father died.

    The case is now in housing court. Still, Ms. Fernandez is not bitter about her underground experience; she even jokingly calls herself an underdog.

    "Had it been a choice between living in the basement or staying in the Dominican Republic — not that the Dominican Republic is a bad place — I would choose the basement," she said. "The fact remains that this is New York City, land of opportunity, so if you have to live in the basement, then you have to do it."

    Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

  2. #2

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    March 3, 2004

    Basement Apartments

    To the Editor:

    While many basement apartments are legal and meet housing standards, your Feb. 25 front-page article "Be It Ever So Low, the Basement Is Often Home" glorifies cellar apartments with potential hazards like inadequate fire exits, ventilation and light; potential exposure to carbon monoxide fumes, asbestos or fire; and over-occupancy.

    Landlords who rent illegal apartments are breaking the law, and tenants who rent them risk their health and safety. Cellar apartments like these should not be glamorized.

    JERILYN PERINE
    PATRICIA J. LANCASTER
    NICHOLAS SCOPPETTA
    New York, March 1, 2004

    The writers are, respectively, housing preservation and development commissioner; buildings commissioner; and fire commissioner.

    Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

  3. #3

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    Quote Originally Posted by Kris View Post
    March 3, 2004

    Basement Apartments

    To the Editor:

    While many basement apartments are legal and meet housing standards, your Feb. 25 front-page article "Be It Ever So Low, the Basement Is Often Home" glorifies cellar apartments with potential hazards like inadequate fire exits, ventilation and light; potential exposure to carbon monoxide fumes, asbestos or fire; and over-occupancy.

    Landlords who rent illegal apartments are breaking the law, and tenants who rent them risk their health and safety. Cellar apartments like these should not be glamorized.

    JERILYN PERINE
    PATRICIA J. LANCASTER
    NICHOLAS SCOPPETTA
    New York, March 1, 2004

    The writers are, respectively, housing preservation and development commissioner; buildings commissioner; and fire commissioner.

    Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
    I actually appreciate your article "Be It Ever So Low, the Basement Is Often Home". The reality is that in some parts of NY more than 30% of the buildings have illegal apartments. If all of those tenants were evicted, New York would have a very bad homeless situation. Not to mention the possible foreclosures due to the fact that the landlord may not be able to afford the building without the additional rent. Obviously there are not enough affordable apartments in NY. I believe JERILYN PERINE,
    PATRICIA J. LANCASTER and NICHOLAS SCOPPETTA should support legislation to assist landlords in legalizing their apartments. The economy is horrible....tenants need places to stay.....landlords need money. Would you prefer the old NY with multiple abdoned buildings and vacant lots. Do you want NY to look like Baltimore?

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    My first apartment in Chicago was a 2 BR, 'garden', with windows that faced a bus stop a la 'My Sister Eileen". A friend lived there and let me move in. He left soon after but would live there off and on. It was in an extremely trendy neighborhood and the radiators were on the ceiling. People always used to stoop down to see what was going on. The trash cans were right outside the kitchen in a gangway so every morning I would boil water for tea, open the kitchen drawer and dump most of the water, killing the many roaches there and also strerilizing the silverware.
    I had an apartment in San Fran. that was right off the lobby. It had an odd window seat across the front which created a window well for the basement. It looked like small apartments had been set up down there (I'm guessing for WWII) and then abandoned afterward.

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