Can Basement Conversions Help London’s Housing Crisis?

Media coverage in Britain has given the impression that a basement conversion in London is a perk of the rich and extravagant. Across the Atlantic, attitudes are surprisingly different. New York, Boston and districts of Canada are all liberalising rules about basement dwellings in order to alleviate the housing misery of their poor to average-income residents.

Boston landlord Patrick Barrett created a petition to relax restrictions, describing them as “a gift to the rich. My petition is a gift to everyone else”. The petition, now made law, allows basement accommodation to be added to single- and two-family homes, eliminates requirements to provide parking and guarantees that new floor space won’t raise property taxes. Councillor Tim Toomey said that in the face of lower and middle-class housing pressures “People are leaving the city… I cannot justify another year of delay”.

Basements are Providing Thousands of New Dwellings

Relaxing the rules is expected to add 1,000 affordable housing units within the Cambridge district of Boston alone. Meanwhile, in New York, the Citizens Housing and Planning Council plans to convert up to 38,000 basements under single-family dwellings into living accommodation and estimates there are 210,000 basements that could potentially be converted in total. In Ontario, Canada, Bill 140 of the Long-Term Affordable Housing Strategy has required every municipality in the state to allow basement apartments since 2011.

Basements Must Be Part of a Managed Housing Strategy

As well as spiralling rents and property prices, another motivation for removing restrictive policies is that thousands of families in New York and Boston are already living in illegal conversions. Because those developments have avoided the scrutiny of planners, many probably lack essential features like adequate ventilation and damp-proofing. Inadequately planned basements in Boston, for example, are at risk from the city’s notorious flooding problems.

Restrictions on basement conversion in London may also be having unintended and undesirable side-effects. One of them is that increasing numbers of people resort to living in vans, garages and sheds. The borough of Newham has seen more problems than most. Their planning officials have been campaigning against “garden shed conversions” for the past four years. Such conversions are unhealthy and unsightly and not necessarily even cheap.

As New York officials expressed it in their “Making Room” initiative, a basement conversion plan in New York would be a good way to increase residential density and give people more housing choices in a particularly expensive urban market. This is no less true in London.

While basements are becoming standard throughout North America, in Britain they still seem to be tarnished by class attitudes. A recent Daily Mail article described thousands of mega-basement conversions in London that cater to the super-rich with swimming pools, cinemas and wine cellars. Ironically, if attitudes don’t change, one of the world’s most prestigious cities might eventually come to resemble some of its worst shanty towns.