When Mildred Velez was looking for her first home in 1965, she settled on a modest place in the Bronx because it had a basement unit for her mother-in-law. Years later, after her mother-in-law died, Mrs. Velez rented the unit to a disabled woman and then to a retired law enforcement officer.
The spacious apartment — with several windows and three ways in and out, including to a backyard — felt like 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 Mrs. Velez’s front door and delivered some startling news: City regulations prohibited anyone from living in the basement. She was breaking the law.
The violations have plunged Mrs. Velez, 90 — who is still renting out her basement — into a yearslong morass of fines and bureaucracy. It has also made her an emblem of one of New York’s most urgent housing problems: how to deal with the tens of thousands of illegal basement homes that remain an intractable feature of the city’s housing stock.
Those problems were put on stark display in September, when the remnants of Hurricane Ida killed 11 people in basement homes, most of them illegal, prompting calls for a better way to legalize and regulate the homes.
There is no reliable data on basements and cellars that are being illegally rented out across New York City. Some may pose deadly threats to the people who live in them — as illustrated by the deaths during Ida where people drowned and had no way to escape because there were not enough exits. But others may only be illegal because they run afoul of a tangle of technical and possibly outdated city regulations.
The homes are not just important sources of income for working-class or lower income New Yorkers like Mrs. Velez. They are also crucial to addressing the city’s affordable housing shortage.
Yet the case of Mrs. Velez shows how challenging it can be, under existing law, to find a solution.
Her violations, which stemmed from an anonymous complaint, appear to center on paperwork filed more than 50 years ago that incorrectly classified the unit as a cellar. Cellars are underground units where at least half the unit is below curb level, and can never be legally rented. But Mrs. Velez’s unit is only a fraction of a foot below curb level.
Getting the paperwork fixed would, according to one estimate provided to Mrs. Velez, involve at least $6,500 for an architect and thousands more in engineering and other work, which Mrs. Velez said she cannot afford. Even if she could, she would then would not be likely to meet other requirements for basement units, like having enough parking space.
Mrs. Velez said her only other income is Social Security, and she needs the rental income from the basement — she charges $800 a month — to support herself. So she continues to accumulate fines on what she maintains has been a livable apartment for decades. City records show, that as of Oct. 6, she faced $18,000 in fines.
“If it wasn’t working in 52 years, you don’t think something would have gone wrong?” she said. “I’m not asking for them to give me anything. I’m just asking them to give me some peace of mind.”
But the city’s Buildings Department maintains that Mrs. Velez needs to stop renting the basement unit or get the permits to amend her paperwork and legalize the apartment. Those permits would be necessary for the city to ensure that qualified people had done any construction work on the unit and that it was a safe place to live.
Andrew Rudansky, a spokesman for the agency, said Mrs. Velez has “been repeatedly provided with detailed guidance” by the department “on how to correct the violating conditions in her cellar.”
“To date, the owner has failed to take the necessary steps to correct the violations,” he said.
Jessica Katz, executive director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, a nonprofit housing group, said Mrs. Velez was “caught in this web of all the regulations around basements.”
Ms. Katz has been trying to help Mrs. Velez find a solution, but she said her situation shows the need to ease city requirements for some homes and to offer financial support for legalization.
“We fail to provide homeowners with a tool kit on how to know and understand what their obligations are, and the tools and the resources to comply with those obligations,” she said.
There are some efforts to address those issues. A bill in the State Legislature would allow basement units to evade some cumbersome regulations, including by eliminating parking requirements, and would direct the state to find a way to help pay for renovations.
Mrs. Velez’s case does not reflect all the issues with illegal basement and cellar homes. Several of the apartments where people died in Ida, for example, only had one way in or out.
Still, city officials have been grappling with the problem for decades: The number of low-income New Yorkers far exceeds the number of affordable homes, prompting many to seek refuge in cheaper basements. And for many lower-income or older New Yorkers, basements are a crucial source of income.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has estimated that there are at least 50,000 illegal units, had pledged to find a way to legalize them. But the city’s one serious attempt, a pilot program in Brooklyn, has largely fallen short amid pandemic-related budget cuts, and Mr. de Blasio last month expressed skepticism that a realistic solution was possible.
Mrs. Velez, who used to rent an apartment in another part of the Bronx, said she never would have moved to Throgs Neck with her husband if it had not been for the basement unit. And she remains adamant that for decades there has been no reason to believe that it 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 officials had inspected the basement and found it to be an acceptable home, Mrs. Velez said.
The current tenant, who has been living in the apartment since 2005, declined to speak on the record because he is a retired law enforcement officer who said he feared retaliation from criminals he once apprehended.
But he said he has had no problems with Mrs. 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 Mrs. Velez’s neighbors across the street who used to babysit his brother’s children and thought it would be affordable and convenient.
He has grown close to Mrs. Velez and plays dominoes with her every Saturday. He said he has thought about moving out because of the problems with the city, but the basement is comfortable and Mrs. Velez have come to depend on each other.
Mrs. Velez, who no longer has any family living nearby, agrees that the living situation has been harmonious. The rent payments are crucial, but the tenant also helps her with chores and groceries.
“My tenant downstairs is as if I had a son downstairs,” she said.
But the unpaid fines could lead to the placement of a lien on her property, and the fear of losing her home has Mrs. Velez feeling stressed.
Every 90 days, she receives a letter reminding her of her failure to address the violations stemming from the 2018 complaint. And last month, a fresh complaint was anonymously filed against her.