Metro

Record-high rents push New Yorkers into basement homes

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These New Yorkers aren’t scared of the basement.

Last year, Caroline Caugliere, 28, a project manager, rented an apartment in the beneath a seven-unit, four-story residential building in Prospect Heights with her bartender boyfriend Christian, 30, and their two cats Sterling and Cyrus.

What their recently renovated digs lack in natural light was made up for with coveted amenities like a dishwasher, in-unit washer/dryer and a large shower. Fresh landscaping around the building façade added privacy, obscuring foot traffic.

“I’m not sure we would have chosen this apartment if it didn’t offer the amenities,” said Caugliere of the building where unit prices range from $2,000 for a one-bedroom to $4,500 for a three-bedroom per month. “But it has really felt like a home in the past year we’ve lived here!”

Although a longtime staple of affordable city living, basement dwellings have a bad rap. They conjure images of grungy college crash pads — cue the greasy pizza boxes, dirty socks and pot smoke — or dangerous, windowless, modern tenements occupied by crowded immigrant families.

In reality, a diverse array of more than 150,000 people currently live in the up to 50,000 basement apartments estimated to exist across the city, according to published reports.

Caroline Caugliere and her cat Cyrus.
Despite flooding dangers, deals drive NYC renters underground, including Caugliere’s pet Cyrus, who’s anything but a scaredy-cat.
Stephen Yang

However, nobody can say for certain just how many New Yorkers are living below grade, beneath townhouses and apartment buildings. That’s because, despite tepid government efforts in recent years to regulate basement units, these apartments remain largely unaccounted for and illegal. 

That policy failure was put in stark relief after record flooding this fall drowned 11 New Yorkers in their illegal basement apartments  and damaged thousands more homes.

I’m not sure we would have chosen this apartment if it didn’t offer the amenities, but it has really felt like a home in the past year we’ve lived here!”

Caroline Caugliere

But as NYC’s rents reach record highs, basement units, both legal and illegal, are an even more alluring alternative than ever before.  

The net effective median rent in Manhattan increased by a whopping 10.1% between July and October and 20% since January as inflation jumped to the highest level seen since 1990, according to data compiled by Miller Samuel/Douglas Elliman.

Brokers now report a race to the bottom, with  interest in these traditionally less-appealing homes running high. 

Those prices alone are more than enough reason to drive renters like Caugliere underground, but basement apartments also offer renters an added layer of privacy during the pandemic, according to Compass broker Isaac Rosenberg.

“A basement apartment allows for the least possible contact with other people,” said Rosenberg. “Many people overlook basement apartments, but with prices in New York skyrocketing and the increase in creativity with the use of space, they are actually hidden gems!”

Kimberly Mendoza (l) and his boyfriend Francisco Hurtado (r) clean their flooded basement level apartment after heavy rains from storm Ida caused flooding in Queens, New York.
This fall, record rains caused flash flooding throughout the city deluging thousands of basement apartments.
Washington Post/Getty Images

Other unexpected perks of cave dwelling are deep-set window wells that are built into the walls, which serve as extra surfaces, as well as cooler and more constant temperatures, which means less strain on the electric bill. 

Caugliere sums all of that up in one word: “Cozy.”

For all of those reasons, executive assistant Michelle Lugo, 39, is currently house hunting specifically for a basement apartment.

“People need to get creative with where they are living,” she said. “Basement apartments are a much more affordable option, especially since, right now, the market is hot and expensive.”

Michelle Lugo, 39, outside of her apartment.
Executive assistant Michelle Lugo is on the prowl for a basement apartment.
Stephen Yang

She is looking for a legal basement apartment that meets the city’s strict codes.

In theory, basement apartments require windows, ceilings that are at least 7 feet high and minimum room sizes set by the housing maintenance code. The walls must also be as high as ground level and waterproofed if deemed necessary by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

“Basement apartments are a much more affordable option, especially since, right now, the market is hot and expensive.”

Michelle Lugo

This is Lugo’s first time looking for a basement apartment but she is jazzed about the possibilities and already planning her interior design, which she describes as “rustic chic,” with lots of stainless steel and wood. She plans to get a bookshelf that fits the look and feel, patterned fabric to make unique curtains and lots of lamps to brighten up potentially darker subterranean spaces.

“Basement apartments give you a more private and cozier feel,” Lugo said.

Interior designer Kevin Maberly — who styles medical spaces and knows a thing or two about perking up drab boxes — recommends opening up a confined space by using lots of white, or soft and bright colors, while also adding personality to walls by hanging valuables, pictures and paintings.

“You can absolutely make a creative and aesthetic life in a basement apartment,” he said. “If the rooms are tiny, make those cozy and intimate. Try to utilize entire walls to get maximum advantage.”

The exterior of Caroline Caugliere’s cozy basement apartment on Sterling Street in Prospect Heights.
Caugliere extols her basement apartment’s coziness as its No. 1 virtue.
Stephen Yang

Mirrors are another classic trick that help brighten darker spaces and magnify any streaming light, said Caroline Solomon, a New York City-based home organizer and stylist.

“Consider placing floor-length mirrors near your apartment windows in dimly lit hallways and in narrow stairways,” she said. “This will instantly create the illusion of more space and light.”

Lower ceilings means less storage space, so use light-colored bins to store items and take advantage of wall space, including installing floating shelves or floor-to-ceiling bookshelves “to create the illusion of higher ceilings. Just take care not to overpack each shelf, as clutter gets magnified in dimly lit spaces,” Solomon said.

“Consider placing floor-length mirrors near your apartment windows in dimly lit hallways and in narrow stairways — this will instantly create the illusion of more space and light.”

Caroline Solomon

Caugliere has actualized many of the hacks to transform her basement apartment into a dream home.

“A big change we just made was color blocking some of the walls in our main room so that there was a little dimension and separation of our kitchen and living room, since it all is one big room,” said Caugliere. “We also learned to mount anything we could on the wall to save on floor space.” In addition, they hung plants all around the apartment, which draws eyes up towards the windows and the natural light coming in.

Solomon agrees that the greener the better in basement apartments.

“Snake plants, ivy, and pothos all thrive in dimly lit spaces, and also purify the air, which often becomes hot and stuffy in a basement setting,” she said.

“Don’t be afraid to lean into the fact that you are in a basement apartment,” said Caugliere. “One of the reasons we really love it is it feels so cozy!”

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