Housing Story:

Illegal Rentals Flourish As Gentrification Underway

Mantai Chow

On a recent afternoon in September, a real estate agent in the Bronx showed an illegal rental room to a reporter posing as a client. He opened the door to a pitch-dark apartment.

“Here is the kitchen,” the agent said, switching on the light.

The door opened to reveal a dirty sink and a rusted stove. Turning left into a narrow hallway tiled in black and white, the agent led his client past the bathroom door, a cluttered table and a discolored refrigerator, before entering the sitting room.

Same level as the driveway outside, the two windows in the sitting room barely let in any light. The room for rent had no windows at all.

When the reporter asked about how hot the room was during the summer, the agent said, “Winter is coming.”

This enclosed room — only big enough for a queen-sized bed, a small drawer chest and a tiny closet — with utilities and a shared kitchen and bathroom, costs $150 per week or $600 per month.

The two-bedroom apartment on Montgomery Avenue was actually a cellar that cannot be lawfully rented or occupied. Cooking facilities are not allowed in cellar rooms, and every sleeping room must have a window, according to regulations. The record from the Department of Buildings shows the owner does not have certificate of occupancy for its cellar, as required by law.

But the agent insisted in text messages that the rental is legal. He said he has rented out his own cellar without a certificate and “never had a problem,” adding that inspectors never come to inspect.

Despite the city’s effort to crack down on illegal rentals, postings of illegal cellar, basement or subdivided rooms remain prevalent on classified websites such as Craigslist. Some of those rooms are taken just a few days after posting. Many of these illegal rentals are in areas where gentrification is expanding.

Eliois Chouolan, a 32-year-old construction worker from Ecuador, is living in an illegal subdivided room in Bushwick, Brooklyn, with his wife and 3-year-old son.

Their beds — a twin and a single side by side— take up so much of the 300-square-feet room that they leave no space for a couch or a dinner table. The family hangs its shoes and belongings on a wall.

Their kitchen and bathroom outside the room are shared with another family of four next door. In winter, Chouolan said, he and his family have to cross a frigid, unheated hallway to reach the kitchen or bathroom.

This apartment, which is on Wilson Avenue, was originally designed to house one family but now is divided into two rooms by a full wall and houses two families of seven people in total.

Chouolan is paying $500 a month for the room, a quarter of his family’s income. “This is what we can afford,” Chouolan said in Spanish.

He and his wife, who is from Venezuela, are undocumented immigrants. They have been looking for an apartment that costs about $1,200 a month. So far, the hunt has proved fruitless, as the cheapest rent price for apartments in Bushwick, where gentrification is accelerating, averages above $1,500.

With the surging property prices, Chouolan said it is getting harder to rent an apartment. He and his family might have no option but to stay in the subdivided room.

Gladys Puglla, a co-chair of Make The Road, an advocacy group for immigrants, said gentrification prompts landlords to push tenants out of apartments and raise rents, leaving many low-income families, especially undocumented immigrants, looking for illegal rentals. “The only option they have is going for illegal ones,” she said.

Gabriela Sandoval, a policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless, said that because of the limited housing stock in New York City, people leaving the shelter system also find themselves struggling to find affordable housing and end up living in illegal rentals.

“It is either that or going into a shelter,” she said. “That circles back to the main factor of why there is record homelessness in New York City,” adding that the city should create more affordable housing.

Meanwhile, Puglla of the advocacy group, Make The Road, said her organization has urged the city to legalize basement rentals in Queens but so far without success.

“We pushed it so hard,” Puglla said. “We have to try again.”