While Gov. Kathy Hochul included a pathway to basement legalization in her February budget proposal, the word “cellar” is absent from her plan. The two terms may be indistinguishable to most property owners, but they’re different under zoning and dwelling laws, and excluding cellars from the state’s plan would omit a significant swath of below-grade housing stock from potential conversion, advocates say.

While a cellar and basement may be indistinguishable to most property owners, New York City’s Zoning Resolution and state Multiple Dwelling Law categorize the two terms separately. To qualify as a basement, at least half of the space must generally be above curb level. A cellar is at least 50 percent below the curb. 

Rather than categorically exclude cellar apartments, the state should clear the way for the city to regulate them, said Howard Slatkin, a former deputy at the New York City Department of City Planning and now executive director of the Citizens Housing & Planning Council, a BASE member. 

“A cellar with no windows is a completely different scenario from a cellar which is just a little bit more than 50 percent below-grade and maybe even has a walkout into the backyard kind of configuration, but it’s still technically a cellar under the definition,” he said. “There’s a broad spectrum of all of these conditions and the city’s program would have to establish basic requirements for light, air, egress and safety.”

Emma Whitford

March 13, 2023