Nearly a year after Hurricane Ida displaced them, 109 families in New York City are still living in hotels and struggling to secure more permanent housing.
Hasena Akter’s family is one of them. She, her husband Mirmahfuz Sayeduzzaman, their two young sons and Sayeduzzaman’s 82-year-old mother have been living at a Radisson hotel near Kennedy Airport ever since the Sept. 1, 2021 storm flooded their Woodside, Queens basement apartment and destroyed all their possessions.
“We’ve stayed here for a long time and we haven’t gotten any housing yet,” said Akter, who works in homecare.
According to the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), the 109 displaced families are spread across three hotels — the Radisson in South Jamaica and two in Downtown Brooklyn — and have been forced to contend with the city’s intimidating housing market.
Their plight reveals the inadequacy of the existing disaster recovery apparatus and the continued safety risks of basement apartments, experts and advocates say.
“We’re talking about a multifold problem about New York City’s housing. We didn’t expect them to solve the problem overnight,” said Annetta Seecharran, executive director of Chhaya, a nonprofit group focused on South Asian and Indo-Caribbean communities primarily in Queens. “We’re disappointed that we’re a year later and we haven’t seen any significant, any meaningful change towards a solution.”
Armed with a federal housing voucher, Akter and Sayeduzzaman have been hunting for an apartment in Queens that’s suitable for the family. His mother is in a wheelchair, so she needs a ramp or an elevator and a large enough bathroom; ideally there would be some outdoor space for the kids to play, too.
But they haven’t been able to secure anything within their budget or constraints. Sayeduzzaman noted he recently checked out a three-bedroom place that seemed promising, but discovered that two of the bedrooms were actually one room that had been sectioned off.
“It’s not easy. It’s tough,” said Sayeduzzaman, who works in insurance. He said the family spends about $150 a day on meals out because they lack a place to cook — and they miss preparing favorite homemade dishes like chicken curry and vegetable naan.
“We loved to cook,” he said.
Records show that the city has spent just over $2 million on hotels to shelter households displaced after Hurricane Ida, which killed 13 people in New York. After the storm hit, HPD first provided hotel rooms for 380 families. The other 271 families have since been able to secure alternative housing, whether temporary or permanent.
The agency offered case management through Brooklyn Community Services to help families find new housing or assist them as they go home, according to HPD spokesperson Jeremy House.
“We’ve also deployed every resource available to get these families back on their feet,” House said in an email.
House said the city is working to provide every qualified household that doesn’t already have a Section 8 voucher with an emergency housing voucher. But getting a landlord to take vouchers can add a layer of difficulty; voucher discrimination is rampant, and rarely curbed. Plus, some of the families in the hotels are undocumented or have mixed immigration status, and not all of them speak English.
Kelly Cardona, who has been living at the Radisson with her 20-month-old daughter, pointed out how complicated it is to get the necessary documents to apply for housing.
“When it comes time to finding an apartment, it’s a whole start of a long process that’s difficult,” Cardona said in Spanish. “’I’m grateful they gave us a roof, but it’s so incredibly hard.”
Bibiane Chamorro and her husband Mario Gamino lucked out. After spending four months in two hotels, their previous landlord helped them secure a first-floor apartment just a few blocks away from their old basement apartment in Flushing.
“It was so difficult to find one new place,” Chamorro said at the hotel Friday. “We weren’t prepared [to show] income, taxes, documents, everything. But he helped us so that’s why we could move.”
The couple is working longer hours as housekeepers to afford the rent, which costs them $800 a month more than their previous spot. But they feel safer in their new apartment, which they moved to in December, and are furnishing the space “little by little,” Chamorro said.
‘Nobody Helped Me’
Chhaya’s Seecharran said that even the current number of Ida victims left in hotels “masks the problem” of housing in New York City because many of the displaced relied on their personal networks, not the government, to find shelter after the storm — but may have been in, or remain in, unstable living situations.
Dameshwar Ramskriet was one of those people. His wife and eldest son drowned when Ida’s waters flooded their Hollis basement apartment. He and his surviving son never went to the hotels offered, but instead stayed with in-laws until they moved into a rental apartment in Queens.
“I was so out of mind. I didn’t know what I was doing,” Ramskriet said. “I did not get help, nobody helped me. I had to do everything by myself.”
He said he gave up trying to get relief funds from FEMA because the process required him to provide more and more information.
“I got tired of it,” he said. “As I said, I was going crazy.”
Now, Ramskriet said he would like to start over.
“It’s very hard to raise our boy by myself,” he said, adding that his 21-year-old son “is very quiet, and missing his mother and brother a lot.”
The deaths of Ramskriet’s wife and son, along with at least nine other people who drowned in basement apartments last year sparked a renewed focus on unregulated basement apartments, which are by their nature prone to flooding yet not subject to the same safety standards as legal occupancies.
“As long as we have a housing crisis, and poverty exists in New York City, people are going to seek out affordable housing options, even if they’re at risk of flooding,” said Kate Leitch, senior policy analyst at the nonprofit Citizens Housing and Planning Council. “Creating a practical pathway to legalizing basement apartments is absolutely critical, and is foundational to every other safety intervention.”
But not much has been done since the tragedies last year, housing advocates say.
“People living in basement apartments are still in the same position they’ve been in. There’s little sign that’s going to change anytime soon,” said Sylvia Morse, program manager for policy at Pratt Center for Community Development.
In a draft document reviewed by THE CITY on Monday, city Comptroller Brad Lander’s office lambasted Albany’s inaction and the city for doing “little more for basement-dwellers than offer[ing] an opt-in text program to provide flood warnings.”
The comptroller will this week propose a state-level “Basement Board Board Law,” as a pathway to increasing safety and accountability for basement apartment residents and homeowners. It includes a mandate for the city and state to provide affordable housing for anyone in a home deemed “unfit for living.”
Meanwhile, in a plan released Friday, the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget proposed spending $1.4 million of its $188 million federal disaster relief funding on two projects: an 18- to 24-month initiative to study the basement apartment conversions, and another to study evacuations in an effort to improve emergency operations for vulnerable residents. In all, the city proposed spending more than $123 million on housing efforts, including those related to affordability and resiliency improvements.
In a statement Monday, mayoral spokesperson Charles Lutvak said the administration is focused on doing “outreach to residents of areas hit hard by Hurricane Ida and other vulnerable neighborhoods,” as the city works on projects to manage stormwater infrastructure.
The Adams administration in July unveiled a plan called Rainfall Ready NYC, in which it committed to conducting community outreach to tell basement apartment dwellers about potential flooding ahead of weather events.
To legalize those apartments, the state laws that regulate multiple dwellings would need to change, but Albany lawmakers earlier this year failed to pass a bill that would have done that.
The city in November revised some of its building codes that could make it easier for single-family homeowners to have legal basement apartments. In June, Adams proposed zoning changes that could pave the way for basement legalization and conversion, but implementation of any of those amendments would be years away.
Previously, in a multi-faceted plan released in the wake of Ida, the de Blasio administration promised to identify basement apartment dwellers and implement an evacuation plan for storms. The Adams administration is taking a slightly different tack, undertaking a study to determine where the highest concentration of basement apartments are located to guide its efforts.
Developing and funding a program to help property owners convert their basements to safer apartments is still in the air.
A three-year city pilot program established in 2019 to convert basements in East New York, Brooklyn was not fully funded the first year. The original target was 40 conversions, but now the program is working with only six homeowners, due to limited resources, according to Ryan Chavez, program director for the Basement Apartment Conversion and Program Pilot at Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation.
Amit Shivprasad and his parents own the house in Hollis where Ramskriet’s wife and son died.
He is in the process of rebuilding the home, including making the basement safer, but doesn’t plan to rent to tenants again.
“I’m never, ever gonna let people stay down there,” Shivprasad told THE CITY. “All that’s gonna be down there is a work desk and a TV. Nothing else.”