As maintenance crews hoovered up raw sewage with a shop vacuum on the ground floor of a building inside Brooklyn’s Borinquen Plaza housing complex on a recent morning, standing water and brown gloop laid strewn across the ground as the odor of human feces hung in the lobby air.
Five inches of rain over the weekend had triggered a perennial problem at the 17-tower East Williamsburg New York City Housing Authority development: Raw sewage backed up, sending putrid water sloshing through the lobbies of several buildings.
Ground floors flood in heavy rains, while systemic sewage issues in two of buildings cause chronic indoor floods, according to 33-year-old Shanequa Lewis, the vice president of the complex’s tenant association and a lifelong resident of the development.
Outside, vents on the side of several of the buildings in Borinquen Plaza I and II, which together house more than 2,000 people in nearly 1,000 apartments, ooze sewage for hours a day at least once a week, rain or shine, tenants said, leaving some of the sidewalks below permanently stained brown.
“They come. They clean it up and it happens again,” said Lewis. “This is too much. It’s been here for years.”
While the agency intends to “install stormwater management solutions at developments that are most vulnerable to rain-driven flooding,” there’s no current funding for those upgrades at Borinquen Plaza, according to Michael Horgan, a spokesperson for NYCHA.
The agency is working with a plumbing contractor to find and address sewage leaks and collapsed waste lines at the Borinquen Plaza development, Horgan said. One cracked sewage line at 300 Bushwick Avenue was fixed Tuesday and repairs would continue as more problems are found, he added. The weekend’s heavy rain worsened the development’s plumbing woes.
‘A Band-Aid on Everything’
Gurgling sewage backups have plagued and disgusted tenants at NYCHA developments across the city, from the East Village to Harlem, Brownsville and Jamaica, where the agency has deployed a pilot program to trap excess rainwater with green infrastructure.
Daniel Barber, the head of the NYCHA’s Citywide Council of Presidents, the tenant association that represents public housing residents across the city, said the weekend’s heavy rain caused sewage backups at several NYCHA developments. It’s a problem exacerbated by declining conditions in aging buildings, and likely to worsen further as a warming climate leads to rainier storms.
“They’re not hitting the root cause,” Barber said. “We drastically need the federal government to come up with more than what they come up with so we can fix our infrastructure.”
Horgan, the NYCHA spokesperson, said the public housing authority is seeking more local and federal funding to address flooding.
NYCHA’s desperate need for funding is no secret. The agency estimates it needs up to $68.8 billion to repair its aging housing stock across the city over the next decade. Some of the most dangerous conditions for renters — like toxic mold and lead paint — have been under the scrutiny of a federal monitor since 2019.
While some of the sewage backups at Borinquen Plaza are triggered by heavy rainfall, tenants and maintenance workers say that sewage regularly bubbles out of vents on the sides of the buildings and trickles down to the sidewalk around the complex even on perfectly dry days.
On a recent morning, tenant association president Eloisa Rowe, 69, traipsed around the development’s perimeter surveying the vents that typically regurgitate sewage.
Several were dry, but one, outside 111 Humboldt Street, was spewing water that dribbled down the side of the building into a rat burrow below. Rowe hailed a passing NYCHA maintenance worker, who said he had a gas leak to attend to and rushed off.
Tenants regularly raise concerns about sewage leaks to the agency, Rowe said, only for maintenance workers to clean up the immediate mess before the leak resumes within a few days.
“That’s the thing with NYCHA,” Rowe said. “They put a Band-Aid on everything.”
Emails to NYCHA representatives dating back to 2020 detail the fetid fecal deluge and the agency’s tepid response.
“We are dealing with high streams of deadly bacteria, viruses and toxic waste. There is a lot of damage throughout the office space as well as our goods, from reoccurring sewage leakage,” Lewis wrote on Sept. 18, 2020, attaching information about service tickets she’d submitted to NYCHA about the leaks.
“I appreciate your time and attention for these unsanitary conditions.”
The sloppy situation went unaddressed for several days, Lewis said, and no one responded to her email. When maintenance workers finally arrived, they didn’t do a deep clean and afterward toilet paper and feces were still strewn around the ground floor. She sent a follow-up email to complain on Oct. 7, at which point workers were dispatched again to do a deeper clean.
Lewis described another flood to NYCHA representatives in an email dated Jan. 26, 2021, that also received no written response from the agency, though she said the area was subsequently cleaned and disinfected.
Rowe said she dreaded the arrival of another summer where warmer temperatures will bake the sidewalk sludge into an even more foul concoction.
“You’re walking down the block and you smell it. You can’t open your windows. It’s not healthy,” Rowe said. “We want quality of life and we’re not getting it. I live here. I want a better life.”
Outside 300 Bushwick Ave., the sidewalk remains brown. Pedestrians trying to not to walk through human waste often detour into oncoming traffic on the congested avenue.
“We gotta go into the street, we don’t walk through that,” said Lewis. “That’s disgusting.”