While the December 23 storm gave many residents a taste of flooding again, some of Rockaway’s most vulnerable residents have recently been dealing with plumbing issues flooding their homes. For almost a week, the first-floor residents of the New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) Hammel Houses building, located at 81-01 Beach Channel Drive, have been unable to use their showers or toilets, and have spent the week sweeping sewage water from their apartments, with a slow and insufficient response from NYCHA.
On Sunday, January 22, Broad Channel resident Cathy Presti called The Rockaway Times to reach out for assistance after her friend, Theresa Ortiz, who lives in the Hammels building on Beach 81st, had been dealing with water coming up from her bathtub and toilet, flooding her entire apartment since the evening of Wednesday, January 18, and no one seemed to be helping. While flooding issues are a major headache for anyone, it made matters worse for Ortiz who is extremely ill, recently having surgery. She’s also a single mother of two girls, one who is autistic. “They left them days without a bathroom and water overflowing from the tub and toilets,” Presti said.
The residents of the first floor and Presti said they made several attempts to notify NYCHA, but their pleas for help allegedly went ignored. Pamela Gokhul, another resident on the first floor, says the super for the building came to her apartment on Thursday, January 19, saying the smoke alarm had to be fixed and she told him about the flooding. “He never reported it to the management office. I called management on Monday, and she said she never knew about it,” Gokhul said.
In the meantime, the residents and Presti say they had been making complaints to NYCHA’s emergency service line. “They gave us an emergency number. We called them many times. What did they do? They closed the ticket after 24 hours. I wrote the ticket numbers down,” Gokhul said. “The overnight emergency team came Saturday and said if we didn’t call and complain, he would’ve never come. But he came and left, and my mats were still being soaked.”
“I asked to speak to a supervisor, so I spoke to them and called the next day because my friend said the issue stopped around 12 on Saturday, but then started again on Sunday,” Presti said. “When they came, they said they were fixing it, but it started again. We were in the hallway at around 2 in the morning and the water continued and continued. Everything was full of water, the hallways, the elevators,” Ortiz said. Instead of resting after her recent surgery, Ortiz spent her weekend on her feet, sweeping sewage water from her apartment floors. “The first day, I fell next to the door while trying to take the water out,” she said. “My feet are so swollen, and I’m scared of falling because I’ll have to call 911 and who’s going to take care of my kids if that happens?”
Presti says more should’ve been done to help the first floor residents. “They should’ve shut the water off or took the people and put them in a hotel until it’s fixed. How do you leave families like that? Theresa is in organ failure and is a mother with two children. She has no family around here,” Presti said. Fed up with the seeming lack of action, Presti started calling local elected officials on Sunday. She was able to get in touch with Councilwoman Joann Ariola, who put her in touch with Councilwoman Selvena Brooks-Powers’ office, as the Hammels building falls within her jurisdiction. “Anthony from Selvena’s office called and he was very helpful. As soon as I got in touch with the right people, they showed up to try to fix it,” Presti said. On Monday, emergency crews were at the Hammels building, allegedly trying to address the problem.
In a statement regarding the flooding, a spokesperson for NYCHA told The Rockaway Times, “The conditions affecting residents at this development were caused by a stoppage in the sewage pipe feeding into the development. The issue was reported on Saturday and NYCHA staff worked throughout the weekend to clear the obstruction, deploying Technical Services specialists to assist staff with repairs. There are currently no flooding conditions and staff are visiting apartments throughout the development to ensure plumbing fixtures are in working order.”
But the alleged fix brought little relief to the residents. “They were still working on it yesterday and it still looks like the water in the bathtub comes and goes,” Ortiz said on Wednesday. Asked if there was still water on her floors, Ortiz said, “No, but the guy told me he is not sure it’s not going to happen again.” Gokhul said this issue goes beyond the past week’s flooding. “I’ve been here for more than 10 years and every three months, we’re having this flood. I even went to court and the judge ordered NYCHA to fix the problem and they haven’t done anything,” Gokhul said. “There was a big flood here before and everything in the apartment was damaged. They never gave me back anything. I’ve slipped and fallen a few times and hurt my back and they never do anything about it.”
NYCHA in general has been heavily criticized for alleged lack of care when it comes to its buildings and residents. Reports came out this week, that NYCHA only collected 65% of the rent it charged over the past year, the lowest percentage in the history of the Authority. According to The Real Deal, this left NYCHA behind $500M in funding. One third of the rent money NYCHA receives is reserved for operations and maintenance. “Without money, we can’t do anything else,” interim CEO Lisa Bova-Hiatt said according to The Real Deal. “We can’t fund the much-needed repairs. We can’t handle emergencies.”
The nonpayment of rent seems to stem from the Covid pandemic, leaving some tenants unable to afford rent, and a two-year eviction moratorium, leading some residents to believe that they didn’t have to pay rent. NYCHA seems to be making cuts to try to recoup some funds. This came with the announcement on Wednesday, that NYCHA Chairman Gregory Russ is stepping down from his position that pays $258,000, the same salary as NYC Mayor. According to The City, when Russ was hired as CEO and Chairman in 2019, his salary was $430,000, until NYCHA split the roles in September. Now it appears they’re trying to eliminate Chairman as a paid position altogether, and the next person to take it on will be serving voluntarily, except for a $250 stipend to attend board meetings.