Living In The Basement: The Sunless World Of Immigrants In Queens

NEW YORK – In New York, hope sometimes costs you the sun.

The city welcomes poor immigrants, but their homes do not. Most rents are beyond the reach of people like Beloved, who arrive looking for a better life or more money that they can send home.

That's why they turn to the basements of Queens.


Below the neighborhood is a bleak city of illegal apartments, where the light does not enter.

Homeowners for one and two families have turned their basements into makeshift bedrooms, built illicitly with narrow hallways, windowless rooms, wobbly walls and tangled electrical wiring. There is no precise count of how many exist, but the calculations approach tens of thousands.

Basements, an open secret, are a refuge for thousands of people who work in restaurant kitchens, bicycles as delivery people, in small factories and on construction sites.

They live alone in small rooms or share compact spaces with strangers, or even sleep in shifts. The apartments are undoubtedly dangerous. However, there is also a kind of security there. Immigrants from around the world, who are in the country legally and illegally, have found a sanctuary in Queens with people who share their language, their food and their culture.

The small, dark room where Amado stays costs $ 650 a month. He has to pay 325. His roommate is in the country illegally, as is his partner's brother, who earlier this year frequently stayed to sleep and shared a single bed. The brothers slept side by side, head to toe, while Beloved rested in his own single bed, silently reading the Old Testament.

In his corner of the room, the brightness of the small television was seen, where the news and the soap operas passed, which provided some light.

He narrowed his eyes to see, even with his glasses on.

Queens is the most diverse neighborhood in the city, a place where 800 languages ​​are spoken. The merchants work until late at night because people are always on their way to work or back.

Everywhere, “RENT” signs adorn the windows of the houses and cover the electric poles. There is no explanation of the rules or danger warnings. The apartments in the basements vary considerably in size, quality and legality.

The threat of raids by immigration authorities caused residents to be nervous all summer. However, immigrants said they still felt very protected in Queens, where there is more access to free legal help for their cases.

They can also find less expensive homes than in other places, even if they do not meet the city's construction standards. Eight areas in Queens are consistently mentioned as the ten places in the city where complaints have been most filed due to illegal accommodations in the houses.

These adaptations can cause tragedies, including cases in which residents could not escape fires that spread rapidly until they wrapped the basements where they lived.

Powered by advocacy groups such as Chhaya, which focuses on the housing needs of South Asian residents, the city recently began a pilot program that will provide homeowners with loans to install windows, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and independent outputs. However, the program will only benefit 40 percent of homeowners in Brooklyn.

The laws of the city establish that basement ceilings must be at least two meters high, housing spaces must have a window and the city must approve the departments with a certificate of occupancy, before being able to rent them.

Such rules make virtually all basement homes offered in Queens illegal, including Amado's home. The ceilings of his room measure less than two meters, and the space has no smoke detectors in sight. More than half of the apartments are under the houses, so they are technically basements. In New York, all homes located in basements are illegal.

At the entrance of the home of Sosimo and Dalilia, there is a nest of cables that looks like a disastrous plate of spaghetti that stuck to the wall after they threw it.

The couple works in a dry cleaning service and lives with two more men in a basement with underground wood panels.

They moved there when their daughter Jessica, now 27, went to college to pay her tuition. They used to pay $ 1600 a month for an apartment. Now they pay $ 500 a month for their room.

The narrow kitchen consists almost entirely of a stove connected to a propane tank designed for outdoor cooking. However, they cannot use it during the summer because the department reaches unbearable temperatures.

There are other houses that are legal and well lit. Oksoon Son, 65, moved almost two years ago to the basement of the house that his daughter and son-in-law rent, because he wanted to help raise his grandchildren.

It is the kind of place that the city would like to develop through the pilot program. His apartment is very clean and only a single particle of dust can be found. Two helium balloons that were left from his grandson's kindergarten graduation float on the roof.

Son, who used to work on manicure, arrived in Queens from South Korea in 1980. After having a hard time, such as when he lived in a homeless shelter for more than a year, he raised his daughter and son in the units. Queensbridge public housing.

He managed to fulfill his dream of forging a better life for his children, and he enjoys every moment in which he takes care of his three grandchildren.

"I like this place," he said in Korean one afternoon while the window light illuminated the entire place. "I love how the sun comes in."

That is what Beloved wants. A little sun, which he barely enjoys when he walks to the restaurant where he has worked six days a week for eleven years.

Amado, who is over 50 years old, has lived in the United States for almost 29 years, having arrived here thanks to a trafficker. He first crossed California, by bus, to get to Brooklyn with his brother and then ended up living in this basement room in Queens. Now he is legally in the country and can go to and from Mexico.

"I was the first in the family to get here," he said in Spanish. “For me it was very difficult. I was very afraid of escalators, for example. ” Beloved laughed at himself.

He doesn't have a real social life in New York. On Wednesdays, he goes to Make the Road New York, a nonprofit organization that operates on Roosevelt Avenue. He says he is indebted to them, for the legal advice they provided two years ago, when he had problems with his green card. He attends almost all the manifestations to lend his body and his voice to any cause that needs it.

The other days he spends it in the basement where the brightness of his cell phone, which is his connection with the family he left in Mexico, gives him some additional light.

A wall in Amado's room reflects the sacrifice he made: he placed receipts on the wall: bank deposits and money orders he sent to his wife in Coatzingo, Mexico.

Beloved yearns to be in Coatzingo, his hometown where his family lives. You can travel there only twice a year.

With the money he saves living austerely in the basement in New York, he is a patron of his family and the town, as they use their earnings to buy small luxuries, such as a large flat screen.

That's why it's in New York. If Amado had stayed in Coatzingo, he would most likely not have gotten a job to support his family. Crops on the family farm bear fruit but produce little profit.

He plans to stay in New York for at least five more years, when he thinks he will have saved enough money to have a good life in Mexico and give his daughters the option of living in the United States to fulfill any dream they have.

Until then, he will continue to live in darkness.

* Copyright: c. 2019 The New York Times Company