To address the big problem of New York’s housing crisis, the city is trying something small: payments to homeowners to build apartments in their garages and attics.
On Tuesday, officials announced a program that would give 15 single-family homeowners up to $400,000 each for such projects, which could include building detached units or retrofitting basements.
Recipients will be restricted by income (the maximum limit for a family of four will be $232,980, with priority given to the lowest incomes) and those interested will be able to apply on the city’s website on Tuesday. Rents for the new apartments would also be capped at, for example, about $2,600 for a one-bedroom apartment.
María Torres-Springer, the city’s vice mayor of housing, economic development and workforce, acknowledged that the effort was modest.
“We hope it’s the kind of program that builds momentum, shows what’s possible and shows New Yorkers how we can build housing in every neighborhood in the city,” he said in an interview.
Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement that the program was a “tangible victory for families” and gave working-class New Yorkers the “tools they need to thrive in this city.”
Facilitating the construction of basements, cabins and other additional units has become an attractive way to encourage development in states and cities facing high housing costs.
Supporters say the model helps homeowners make money and can be great for seniors trying to find affordable places near their families, which is why the units are often called “granny flats.”
But complicated regulations make them expensive to build and maintain in New York City, at least legally, said Howard Slatkin, executive director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Council, a nonprofit advocacy group.
There is already a lot of illegal and unregulated housing, in basements and basements that can be so unsafe that they can become deadly in the event of floods and fires.
Government attempts to change regulations and encourage the development of such units under rules that make them safer have largely failed. Suburban lawmakers helped stymie Gov. Kathy Hochul’s attempt this year to ease some of the restrictions.
A pilot program in New York City that began under Mayor Bill de Blasio to convert basements into safe, legal apartments failed primarily because of the cost of renovation. So far only one basement is being renovated through the program. In some cases, regulations would have required homeowners to add sprinklers in each room or guardrails along the ceiling if they wanted to add a basement unit.
The program announced Tuesday targets areas where current codes already allow homeowners to add another unit. It comes as the Adams administration is also pushing for zoning changes that would allow people in a broader swath of the city to add additional units.
While most people might think of New York City as a dense place with large apartment buildings, lower-density neighborhoods make up more than half of the city’s land, Slatkin said.
That’s why the program looks promising, he said. “It helps everyday homeowners who don’t have the kind of access to capital that a builder might have on their own,” she said.
“This is the way housing can be produced at a relatively low cost,” he said.