Pratt Center Project

Sustainable Community Development

Informal Dwelling Units

Basement Apartments Safe for Everyone (BASE) is a community-based coalition, led by Chhaya CDC, that has been working to tackle one of the most common-sense issues in preserving and creating affordable housing in New York: legalizing informal dwelling units  and maximizing existing housing stock in small homes to provide safe, healthy, and affordable housing. Estimated at more than 117,000 citywide, “informal units” in this case refers to housing that currently cannot be legally occupied as a dwelling unit, but that is occupied nevertheless, and typically located in the basement or cellar of 1-3 family homes.

Since 2006, our research and advocacy has supported BASE in advancing a proposal for these units, one that is rooted not only in technical feasibility, but also in meeting a critical social need for lower-income homeowners who are under threat of foreclosure and low-income tenants, who desperately need safe and affordable places to live. In 2009, we published Housing Underground: A Refuge and Resource which documents the neighborhoods with the greatest need and articulates some of the basic components of a successful policy in New York City. These include:

  • Working closely with community-based stakeholders who know the community best, and have deep relationships and expertise with homeowners
  • Maximizing the universe of eligible units to include 2-family homes
  • Incorporating affordable housing mechanisms to protect existing tenants and prevent displacement
  • Working neighborhood-wide in communities with high numbers of informal units to make sure that infrastructure planning and service levels take into the account the actual population of the neighborhood

Mayor de Blasio endorsed the effort in his Housing New York Plan in 2014, but deepened his commitment substantially in 2016 when he committed $12 million to explore and implement a pilot in the East New York neighborhood that had just been rezoned.

Pratt Center has been working closely with Cypress Hills LDC and other community-based partners, agencies, the local Council Member, and the mayor’s office to shape the design of a pilot program to fulfill this commitment and pave the way to expand the program to other neighborhoods citywide.

We are supported by distinguished alumni, students, and professors from Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture, which houses the Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment.  In particular, Louis Céspedes (who served as a Pratt Center Fellow in the 1990s early in his career!) and Deborah Gans have been extremely generous with their expertise and critical to our efforts to document existing basements and cellars and craft solutions to retrofit them that comply with applicable codes.