Flooding of illegal units belies NYC progressives’ self-righteous claims

Why do we have building codes if we aren’t going to enforce them? Mayor de Blasio styles himself a progressive. But a century ago, the original progressives wanted everyone to have a safe place to live, regardless of income. In turning a blind eye to tens of thousands of people living in illegal and dangerous apartments, Hizzoner ironically subscribes to a type of pre-progressive caveat-emptor philosophy. 

In 1890, muckraker Jacob Riis’ “How the Other Half Lives” chronicled the shocking fate of tens of thousands of New Yorkers, mostly poor immigrants and their children, crammed into the “inhuman dens” of disease-ridden tenements. Even back then, though, New York had a law against this, enacted in 1867, giving people a “legal claim” to “air and sunlight,” as Riis wrote. The city just didn’t enforce it. 

Similarly, 146 people died at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory downtown in 1911 not because New York didn’t have laws against locking exit doors, but because the owners didn’t follow them. 

Both the laws and their enforcement improved, part of New York’s century-long public-health triumph. Now, we’re going backward. Eleven people, including 2-year-old Lobsang Lama, drowned in their basement apartments during last week’s flash floods. 

Five of the six apartments in which they drowned were illegal. The city had complaints about at least three of these illegal apartments — and didn’t do much to investigate them.

Most basement apartments are illegal for a good reason: You can’t easily escape from them. But Goth­am has long ignored illegal dwellings: Last year, three people died in fires in illegal units. 

DAs should prosecute owners who endanger their tenants; the owners of these buildings should face manslaughter charges. 

But what about the city’s culpability? Last week, de Blasio acknowledged that at least 100,000 people, mostly illegal immigrants, live in illegal apartments. 

A basement apartment where two people died from flooding in Queens.
A basement apartment where two people died from flooding in Queens.
Gregory P. Mango

Illegal crowding has helped spread COVID, too, just as it spread infection disease in Riis’ day. It’s a reason why the city’s death toll from coronavirus is 403 per 100,000, by far the highest in the country. 

But the mayor doesn’t plan to do anything about it. 

Sure, he made an empty gestures, saying that next time we have a flash flood, the city will tell people to evacuate such apartments temporarily. How? A flash flood, by definition, comes quickly. 

One answer to this humanitarian crisis is to build more housing. 

Yet property owners already have the option of upgrading their basement apartments. They don’t do it, because such upgrades would make the apartments too expensive for their tenants. “Trying to make an illegal basement apartment up to code is very difficult physically, very costly,” the mayor said last week. 

Why can’t the tenants afford ­legal, safe housing? Because they supply New York’s illegally cheap labor. Black-market workers earn below the minimum wage, and ­often toil in unsafe working conditions. 

These are the people who die in preventable construction disasters, paid by the day, with no workplace-safety protections, as well as the people who struggle through floodwaters to bring restaurant customers their hot food in a historic storm, for cheap. 

Legalizing long-term immigrants — they aren’t going anywhere, after all — would give them some leverage over exploitative landlords and employers. 

Except it wouldn’t solve the problem. We would quickly import a new cohort of undocumented immigrants, unprotected from wage, housing and workplace laws, because the city ­depends on cheap labor. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio visiting a Queens neighborhood that was heavily damaged by flooding on September 6, 2021.
Mayor Bill de Blasio visiting a Queens neighborhood that was heavily damaged by flooding on September 6, 2021.
Photo by Matthew McDermott

De Blasio loves to be virtuous about the city’s $15 minimum wage, as well as mandated sick leave, but the only reason any of this “works” is that hundreds of thousands of people toil in the second-tier, basement-dwelling economy. 

New York City is full of failure to enforce the law. Vending licenses, for example, enable lawful workers to earn a decent living, but they don’t work if the city has tens of thousands of illegal street vendors competing against them. 

New York’s progressives want their apartments cleaned and renovated, their children watched and their food delivered hot and fast, and they love to romanticize “the churro lady” — but they don’t want to think about the people drowning in the basement. 

Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor of City Journal. 

Twitter: @NicoleGelinas


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