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OPINION: Hurricane Ida should be a wake-up call to address housing shortage

by Brendan Cheney | @brendancheney | New York Housing Conference
Wednesday, 15 September 2021 15:00 GMT

A satellite image shows a rail yard and homes along Huff Avenue submerged in floodwater after torrential rains swept through Manville, New Jersey, U.S., following the passing of Hurricane Ida, September 2, 2021. Satellite image copyright 2021 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The lessons of Hurricane Ida are clear. With stronger storms and more destruction looming, this is a moral imperative.

Brendan Cheney is the director of policy and communications for the New York Housing Conference, a housing policy and advocacy organization based in New York City.

The destruction from Hurricane Ida made plain what housing advocates in New York have been saying for years: the severe housing crisis and shortage is a matter of life and death. Rents have been increasing at a faster rate than income for nearly two decades, and the lack of sufficient production in big, in-demand markets like New York, has forced low-income Americans into unsafe, substandard housing like illegal basement apartments.

The results are truly devastating. The flash flooding killed at least 44 people in four Northeastern states. Of the 13 people who tragically lost their lives in New York City from the hurricane, at least 11 people died in basement apartments during extreme flooding they could not escape because their homes were not safe.

This unthinkable tragedy should be a wake-up call to Americans across the country that we need to get serious about addressing our housing shortage. Until we do, Ida will not be the last housing tragedy – and the next one may be worse.

The first step is to recognize that this is a collective failure. In New York, for example, we have produced fewer new homes in the last 50 years than we did in the 1920s. That is the fundamental reason why 77,900 city residents are homeless on any given night and why 51 percent of very low-income NYC renters pay more than half their income in rent. Overall, New York has 600,000 fewer affordable rental units for very low-income households than residents need.

That is why so many households with nowhere else to go turn to unsafe dwellings like illegal basements and cellars, which are often underground without required egress to escape in case of emergency. This is housing of last resort for households desperate for a home. There are simply not enough housing opportunities for low-income families, let alone safe and high-quality housing opportunities.

There is a solution that extends beyond producing significantly more affordable housing for the lowest-income New Yorkers. The city’s next mayor must expand funding for basements that include zoning changes, low-interest financing for conversions and technical assistance for participating homeowners. Legalizing basement apartments could add between 10,000 – 38,000 legal housing units according to research by the Citizens Housing and Planning Council.

Meanwhile, the current mayor can start by expanding on the underfunded Basement Apartment Conversion Pilot Program. The program provides low and middle-income homeowners in one to three-family homes in East New York and Cypress Hills, Brooklyn with low cost or potentially forgivable loans to convert their basement or cellar into a safe, legal, and rentable apartment. The program should be quickly expanded citywide.

This has widespread support. The United for Housing coalition – a group of 90 organizations – endorsed this recommendation in our blueprint to solve the housing crisis, delivered to candidates last spring.

Unfortunately, that alone will not be enough. Many basement units cannot be brought up to code. With growing concerns about more frequent weather events, New York must actively enforce its building code to prevent the next tragedy. In cases where people are living in illegal dwellings that cannot be made safe, the city must develop a plan to immediately re-house them into safe, affordable housing.

United for Housing also called on the next mayor to double current housing expenditures to create and preserve more housing. This will go a long way toward addressing the problem, but the city alone cannot tackle this problem. Congress needs to step in.

That’s why we support President Joe Biden’s campaign pledge to make Section 8 housing vouchers available to all eligible households. Currently, less than one-in-four eligible households receive rental assistance vouchers due to deliberate underfunding. The results would be transformative: if everyone who needs assistance receives it, people would not be forced to live in unsafe housing.

All in all, need to support and legalize basement dwellings and bring them up to code where possible while also dramatically increasing housing supply to address the root cause of the problem. And, at the same time, Congress needs to step up and provide the real relief struggling Americans need. With stronger storms and more destruction looming, this is a moral imperative.

The lessons of Hurricane Ida are clear. The only question left is whether our elected officials in City Hall and in Washington will heed the call and finally ensure that Americans have access to the safe and affordable homes they deserve.

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