Thu. Jan 20th, 2022

These New Yorkers are not afraid of the basement.

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

What their newly renovated excavations lack in natural light was offset by coveted amenities such as a dishwasher, in-unit washer / dryer and a large shower. Fresh landscaping around the building’s facade added privacy and blurred pedestrian traffic.

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

Although basement housing has been a long-standing fixed component of affordable urban life, it has a bad rap. They conjure up images of grungy dormitories – cue the greasy pizza boxes, dirty socks and pot smoke – or dangerous, windowless, modern apartments occupied by crowded immigrant families.

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

Caroline Caugliere and her cat Cyrus.
Despite flood hazards, deals drive NYC tenants underground, including Caugliere’s pet Cyrus, who is anything but a scary cat.
Stephen Yang |

But no one can say for sure how many New Yorkers live below class, under townhouses and apartment buildings. This is because, despite lukewarm government efforts in recent years to regulate basement units, these apartments remain largely indefensible and illegal.

This political failure was put in sharp relief after record floods this fall, 11 New Yorkers drowned in their illegal basement apartments and damaged thousands more homes.

I’m not sure we would have chosen this apartment if it did not have the facilities, but it has really felt like a home in the last year we have lived here! ”

Caroline Caugliere

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

The net effective median rent in Manhattan rose by as much as 10.1% between July and October and 20% since January, when inflation jumped to its highest level since 1990, according to data compiled by Miller Samuel / Douglas Elliman.

Realtors are now reporting a race to the bottom where interest in these traditionally less appealing homes is rising.

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

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

Kimberly Mendoza (l) and his girlfriend Francisco Hurtado (r) are cleaning in their flooded basement apartment, after heavy rain from storm Ida caused flooding in Queens, New York.
This fall, record-breaking rains caused flooding across the city, flooding thousands of basement apartments.
Washington Post / Getty Images

Other unexpected benefits of cave dwellings are deep-seated window wells built into the walls, which serve as extra surfaces, as well as cooler and more constant temperatures, which means less strain on the electricity bill.

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

For all these reasons, director Michelle Lugo, 39, is currently on a house hunt specifically for a basement apartment.

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

Michelle Lugo, 39, outside her apartment.
Executive Assistant Michelle Lugo is looking for a basement apartment.
Stephen Yang |

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

In theory, basement apartments require windows, ceilings that are at least 7 feet high, and minimum room sizes set by the Home Maintenance Code. The walls must also be as high as ground level and watertight if deemed necessary by the Ministry of Housing Conservation and Development.

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

Michelle Lugo

This is the first time Lugo is looking for a basement apartment, but she is excited about the possibilities and is 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 suits the look and feel, patterned fabric to make unique curtains and lots of lamps to light up potentially darker underground spaces.

“Basement apartments give you a more private and cozy feeling,” Lugo said.

Interior designer Kevin Maberly – who styles medical rooms and knows a thing or two about refreshing sad boxes – recommends opening a limited space using lots of white or soft and bright colors, while adding personality to the walls by hanging valuables , pictures up. and paintings.

“You can definitely create a creative and aesthetic life in a basement apartment,” he said. “If the rooms are small, make them cozy and intimate. Try to take advantage of entire walls for maximum benefit.”

Outside Caroline Caugliere's cozy basement apartment on Sterling Street in Prospect Heights.
Caugliere highlights the cosiness of its basement apartment as its No. 1 virtue.
Stephen Yang |

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

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

Lower ceilings mean less storage space, so use light trash cans 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 be careful not to overpack each shelf, as clutter gets magnified in dimly lit rooms, ”Solomon said.

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

Caroline Solomon

Caugliere has updated many of the hacks to turn its basement apartment into a dream home.

“A big change we just made was color blocking some of the walls in our main room, so there was a small dimension and separation of our kitchen and living room, as it’s all one big room,” Caugliere said. “We also learned to mount everything we could on the wall to save on floor space.” In addition, they have hung plants around the apartment, which draw their eyes up to the windows and the natural light that comes in.

Solomon agrees that the greener the better in basement apartments.

“Snake plants, ivy and pothos all thrive in dimly lit rooms and also clean the air, which often gets hot and stuffy in a basement,” she said.

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

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