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Retrofit Basements: New Affordable Housing?

CHPC’s Almanac Outlines New Technologies That Turn Basements into Low Cost Urban Assets

Written by: David Navarrete

Basement apartments are seen as a viable alternative to stem the simmering housing crisis, an urban blight exacerbated by the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic and the economic fallout that has followed. Local advocates like the Citizens Housing & Planning Council (CHPC), in partnership with urban campaigns like BASE (Basement Apartments Safe for Everyone), have jumpstarted interest in retrofitting underutilized spaces like basements given their economic benefits.

Experts agree that to retrofit basement apartments with proven, code-complaint technologies, enables home or properties owners to:

* Create new rental units without the cost of acquiring land

* Rent living spaces for less than comparable above-grade units

* Gain a new source of revenue to help pay a mortgage, maintain property, or subsidy living expenses

Inspired by the ideas presented at the Housing Innovation Lab: Basement event (NYC, Feb. 2019), the Citizens Housing & Planning Council (CHPC), a non-profit research and education organization founded in 1937, has published an innovative Basements Almanac for developers and property managers.




The almanac is a compendium of new concepts and technologies for improving the safety and habitability of basement apartments in New York City. Sky Factory’s award-winning Luminous SkyCeilings are featured among assorted and novel technologies to transform underutilized basement spaces into viable and affordable housing.

“We were delighted to provide the evidence-based design research and technical details to the policy analysts at the CHPC who evaluated the suitability of our installations,” remarked Skye Witherspoon, Sky Factory’s CEO. “Our products can certainly help improve the habitability of below-grade spaces by enabling occupants to experience the restorative benefits of an illusory connection to open skies.”

The company’s array of virtual skylights and windows can assist developers, property managers, and architects to redress basements that don’t currently meet habitability requirements. For example, access to daylight, as outlined by the NYC Building Code, has long been one of the most difficult standards for basement space compliance.




However, the CHPC notes that while the window requirements of the code are often difficult and expensive, sometimes even impossible to meet, the new almanac highlights that “there are many performance-based lighting schemes that could provide an alternative and complementary path to code-compliance, offer occupants a similar or improved experience relative to the current code requirement, and ensure that health and safety standards are met.”1

Affordable housing has been a top priority for the nation’s largest cities, including New York City, where the cost of living has effectively prized out working and middle-class residents. Local advocates have been increasingly vocal about the lack of low-cost homes for a workforce that needs to live close to their jobs. Employers, large and small, are invariably located downtown, where no one but the rich can afford to live, but where countless businesses depend on even a larger ecosystem of service providers.

New York City’s affordable housing lottery illustrates the scale of the problem.

According to a June article in The New York Times, since 2013, more than 25 million applications have been submitted to the city’s highly coveted, below-market apartments, all vying for just 40,000 units. Applicants endure waiting times that can exceed half a decade, facing personal financial hardship while the city’s draconian lottery system processes a massive and convoluted backlog of applications.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent overhaul of the housing lottery system will finally bring the entire application fully online, streamlining what had become a cumbersome bureaucratic process. However, more low-cost homes are desperately needed to address the chasm between available and affordable apartments and the sheer number of applicants that qualify for them.




CHPC’s Basements Almanac offers a range of practical approaches to enhance not only daylight, but also the air quality and fire safety of basement apartments. Moreover, the outlined concepts in the guide are applicable for better design in any apartment setting.

It is a valuable resource for developers, property managers, and architects. But even homeowners can learn from the directory and explore proven solutions for their home.

Learn more about the Citizens Housing & Planning Council.


1 Housing Innovation Lab: Basements (February 2020). NYC, CHPC. Citizens Housing & Planning Council.


 


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