Queens drowning death came in illegally converted basement apartment


The owners of a building in Queens where a woman drowned in the basement during Tropical Storm Ida were cited for illegally renting out the sublevel storage unit as an apartment.

Yue Li Chin, 84, drowned in the illegal basement apartment on 84th street in Elmhurst late on Wednesday, and the building owners were issued certificate-of-occupancy violations hours later, the New York Daily News reported.

Of the 13 people killed in New York City, 11 were found dead in basements, police said, as rapidly rising water levels left them with no way out. 

It’s unclear how many of the other deaths may have been related to illegally converted basement apartments, which are frequently rented out to impoverished families and immigrants in the city.

Yue Li Chin, 84, drowned in the illegal basement apartment of this building on 84th street in Elmhurst late on Wednesday. The owners were cited for illegally converting the unit

A bus navigates past abandoned cars on a flooded highway in Queens on Thursday, the remnants of Tropical Storm Ida created massive flooding

A bus navigates past abandoned cars on a flooded highway in Queens on Thursday, the remnants of Tropical Storm Ida created massive flooding

Severe flooding is seen in Queens on Thursday morning. Of the 13 people killed in New York City, 11 were found dead in basements

Severe flooding is seen in Queens on Thursday morning. Of the 13 people killed in New York City, 11 were found dead in basements

The death toll from Ida across the Northeastern states is now 48. In New Jersey , more than 20 people died in flooded homes or on the roads.

There were also deaths in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

In Chin’s case, her panicked son found her dead shortly before midnight on Wednesday, after floodwaters submerged the street and poured into her basement apartment.

Her drowning death and others in cramped basement apartments highlight the risks of the often substandard units.

‘Among the people MOST at risk during flash floods here are those living in off-the-books basement dwellings that don’t meet the safety codes necessary to save lives,’ tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat.

‘These are working class, immigrant and low-income people & families,’ she added.

Ocasio-Cortez argued that the situation shows ‘How the climate crisis is an inequality crisis.’ 

Rainfall from Hurricane Ida flooded countless New York City basements

Rainfall from Hurricane Ida flooded countless New York City basements

Ang Lama, 50, Mingma Sherpa, 48, and their two-year-old son, Ang (full name Lobsang), were found dead in their basement apartment in Woodside, Queens on Thursday morning. 

Water from the flash flood – caused by remnants of Hurricane Ida – began pouring into the family’s basement apartment around 9.30pm Wednesday, as Sherpa frantically dialed her upstairs neighbor for help. 

‘The water is coming in right now…The water coming in from the window!’ Sherpa purportedly yelled down the phone to Choi Sledge, who lives on the complex’s third floor. 

Choi told The New York Times that she urged the family to ‘get out’ and make their way upstairs. When Choi tried to call back minutes later there was no answer. 

The basement apartment features just one door, and occupants can only leave by climbing an external flight of stairs. 

Deborah Torres, who lives on the first floor of the complex, says she believes the staircase would have been cascading with rushing water, making it impossible for the family to escape.  

‘I think the pressure of the water was too strong that they couldn’t open the door [to get out and up the stairs] ‘ Torres told The New York Daily News. ‘The [basement] was just like a pool with stairs.’   

Ang Lama, 50, and his two-year-old son (pictured) drowned inside their basement apartment on Wednesday night

Roberto Bravo, 66, died in the basement of his home in Queens. His family posted tributes to him on social media on Friday

Ang Lama, 50, and his two-year-old son (pictured left) drowned inside their Queens basement apartment on Wednesday night along with the two-year-old’s mother, who has not been pictured. Roberto Bravo, 66, (right) died in the basement of his home in Queens

Danny Hong shows where the water reached up to him as he shows the damage in his basement apartment on 153rd St. in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough

Danny Hong shows where the water reached up to him as he shows the damage in his basement apartment on 153rd St. in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough

Also killed in a basement was Darlene Hsu, who was trapped in a freak accident while visiting the super’s apartment. 

After he was called to check out the building’s pumps, the apartment flooded with such force that the water slammed the front door shut and trapped her inside, her ex-husband told the Daily News. 

The building at 61-20 Grand Central Parkway where Hsu died had a long history of complaints, including a still-unpaid $1,250 fine imposed last year for failure to maintain the residence to code. 

Another victim was a 66-year-old man, originally from Ecuador, who died in a windowless bedroom in Brooklyn, the New York Times said.

A 2008 study by the Pratt Center for Community Development found that 114,000 New Yorkers lived in illegal basement apartments but researchers say the number is now likely to be much higher.

‘The problem is that because these spaces are illegal, because there are big fines associated with them, because the tenants need the space, the homeowners need the income, no one wants to talk about it,’ said Rebekah Morris, who leads basement legalization work at Pratt, told AFP.

‘So it’s very, very difficult to assess what the actual numbers are but we know anecdotally that it’s very high,’ she added.

Also killed in a Queens basement was Darlene Hsu, who was trapped in a freak accident while visiting the super's apartment

Also killed in a Queens basement was Darlene Hsu, who was trapped in a freak accident while visiting the super’s apartment

The problem is becoming more acute as New York’s population grows but adequate housing fails to keep up.

Over the past decade, the city added 629,000 people, bringing its population to more than 8.8 million, according to US census data released last month.

All but one death in this week’s storm occurred in the borough of Queens, which has a high immigrant population, including many undocumented workers from Central and South America.

Morris said basement units are ‘a key piece of the housing ecosystem’ among immigrant communities, essential workers and older residents, who cannot afford to stay elsewhere.

‘There’s such a big crisis here. We don’t have enough housing. And so people rent where they can’t get a roof over their head, which puts them in danger,’ said Morris.

Experts want action taken against unscrupulous landlords who take advantage of low supply and cut corners to maximize profits.

‘There does have to be some accountability for the property owners who cut up apartments illegally,’ Nicole Gelinas, urban economics expert at the Manhattan Institute think-tank, told AFP.

Mayor Bill de Blasio did not declare a state of emergency until after seven people's bodies were found in basements

Mayor Bill de Blasio did not declare a state of emergency until after seven people’s bodies were found in basements

A man who gave his name as John, helps to clean a friend's basement, Friday in the Queens borough of New York. The area was flooded Wednesday

A man who gave his name as John, helps to clean a friend’s basement, Friday in the Queens borough of New York. The area was flooded Wednesday

But activists also say that basement apartments are part of the solution to New York’s housing problems.

It’s not basement units per se that are problematic but illegal ones that don’t meet basic safety requirements such as suitable emergency exit routes, they say.

The Pratt Center is part of a coalition of groups trying to help increase the number of legally-recognized below-ground units under a campaign called BASE, which stands for Basement Apartments Safe for Everyone.

They estimate that there is the potential for the creation of 200,000 safe and affordable basement apartments to boost New York’s housing stock.

On Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that extreme weather caused by climate change meant New York required a ‘new set of ground rules’ for those living below ground.

‘We need a plan to evacuate folks who live in basements when we have extreme rain and flooding,’ he told MSNBC, announcing he would set up a task force to study the issue.

De Blasio did not declare a state of emergency until after seven people’s bodies were found in basements. 

‘Things that we were told were once in a century are now happening regularly. We have to change what we do across the board,’ he said at a press conference on Friday.

‘It’s not just us – we saw the destruction in Louisiana, we see what’s happening with the wildfire.’ 

‘We all understand this is coming from a climate crisis and they are creating brutal problems – things that come on with a speed and ferocity that we have never seen before,’ the mayor added. 

De Blasio said he’d introduce a new ‘rain’ response plan which include sharp warnings to residents that he said were going to be ‘abrupt’.  



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