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Paying Rent

Three Inches of Water in a Flooded Basement Apartment and Nowhere Else to Go: ‘It Feels Like We’re Forgotten’

Tania knows her basement floods when it rains. But she doesn’t know where else she can go.

Tania in her flooded basement apartment in South Slope, Brooklyn. (Hell Gate)

On Friday afternoon, Tania, a soft-spoken 34 year old in a surgical facemask, burgundy sweatshirt, and purple rain boots, let me in the front door of her South Slope apartment building, and down the stairs into her basement apartment. The apartment isn't legal, and Tania said she didn't want to use her last name or have her face photographed to avoid antagonizing her landlord. At the foot of the stairs, three inches of water covered the floor. 

As she waded through that water to the door that separates her living space from the building's laundry area, she pointed out a rubber skirt at the bottom of the door. "It doesn't keep the water out," she said, "but it keeps the cockroaches from floating through under the door." Sure enough, the flotsam of half a dozen big waterbug carcasses bobbed in the dim hallway.

Inside the studio apartment, the water shimmered under a fluorescent light as it sloshed up the legs of her furniture. The bottoms of her shelves and cabinets were slowly sloughing into a pulpy oatmeal, and the fold-out couch she sleeps on was taking on water. "The level has actually gone down. It used to be up to here," Tania said, pointing to a point on the upholstery about five or six inches off the ground.

Tania moved into the apartment four years ago. "I was coming out of a difficult situation," she said. "It was supposed to be temporary." But then COVID hit, and the person who was letting her stay for free told her she had to start paying rent, albeit only $900 a month, a better deal than she could find anywhere else. Working full time as a receptionist in a veterinary office, she didn't have a lot of options.

"I've been stuck here ever since, because what else can I afford?" she said. "I don't make a lot of money."

But it wasn't long before Tania realized that whenever there's an appreciable amount of rain, her apartment floods. She learned to keep all of her belongings elevated several feet off the floor, and she began keeping a go-bag near her bed in case it flooded at night when she was asleep.

Tania expects it will take several days for the water to completely recede in her apartment. She called 311 this morning, hoping to find guidance on where she could take shelter in the meantime, but was disappointed to find that the 311 operator appeared to be working off a script that would have been more useful the day prior, before the flood.

"I kept asking her questions, and she was like, 'They didn't know this was going to be a state of emergency, so all they have is 'just prepare,'" Tania said. "She was telling me, 'You need to move to higher ground,' and how to prepare. They didn't know how it was gonna be, it's not a hurricane. I was like, I understand it's not a hurricane, but your city is flooded. What about us that live downstairs in basements, you know, like, where are we going to go? She was like, 'I understand that.' But she really didn't."

Tania next called the Red Cross, she said, but they told her to call 311, and to ask to talk to a supervisor. "Nobody was any help," she said.

Hell Gate asked City Hall what resources are available for people whose apartments have been flooded, and how they are getting the word out about those resources. City Hall did not immediately respond.

Tania also called 311 several weeks ago to report conditions in her apartment, she said—the vermin and the pervasive mold that exacerbates her asthma and has started causing blotchy outbreaks on her face. 

A few weeks later, a building inspector left a "Sorry I missed you" note inside the building, she said, which perplexed her, because she'd been home at the time, but no one had knocked on her door.

Part of the problem, she said, is that she doesn't pay rent to the landlord. Her arrangement is with the tenant upstairs. Regardless, neither party is particularly invested in addressing the flooding. "They just tell me that there isn't really supposed to be an apartment here. I'm not legally supposed to be here. I have no rights, so it doesn't matter. It's like I'm not a person," she said. 

But Tania doesn't know where else she could go that she can afford. "I have applications with NYC Housing Connect. I qualify for a lot of those places, but I never get chosen. I've been on there for like 10 years," she said. "But there just isn't affordable housing in this city. You go on the sites, and most of the availabilities are for people making $60,000 to $200,000, and there isn't much for people like me." Other housing options would require Tania to give up her cats, which she isn't willing to do, or to live with roommates, which she says she won't do again, after a traumatic experience.

"I shouldn't have to do that anyway," she said. "It's not fair. A lot of us are just surviving. I'm not the only one going through it. I know a lot of coworkers of mine live in basements. It's like, what are we supposed to do? It feels like we're forgotten. Honestly, I don't know what to do anymore. I feel so defeated."

A neighbor on the third floor was letting Tania and her cats stay with them for the afternoon, until she could sort something else out for the night. She thought she might end up spending the night in a church where her partner works part-time. He'd invited her to stay there with him until the water went down. His basement apartment was flooded too.

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