When it rains, it pours. But in the Wakefield section of The Bronx, when it rains hard, it floods.
Tenants at 4761 White Plains Rd. told THE CITY they have had their furniture, mattresses, clothing, shoes and even an electric wheelchair damaged by floodwaters that rise up from backed-up sewer drains and come through the ceilings and floors.
They are routinely on edge whenever hard rain falls, placing their belongings out of harm’s way by storing them in plastic bins, setting them on tables or spending the night with family elsewhere and dealing with the damage the next morning. The flooding is intermittent, happening an estimated eight times over the last three years, according to tenant Richard Ruperto.
But it is damaging.
“My [wheelchair] controller got wet. My wheelchair stopped working. I stood in my home for nine months,” Ruperto told THE CITY.
Ruperto has been using a wheelchair since a construction accident more than 20 years ago. He moved into the building in August 2020 after living in a homeless shelter system for seven years, aided by social worker Diane Pagen and housing advocate Alphonso Syville.
After his rain-damaged chair wouldn’t work, he saved up money for a replacement in part by not paying his $238 portion of the rent (the rest of the $1,464 rent is covered by a City FHEPS housing voucher).
As a result, his landlord Abraham Steinmetz filed a lawsuit in March against him for nonpayment of rent.
Ruperto and his fellow basement tenants Darryl Walker, Rosa Alvarez and Roieasha Campbell allege their landlord has failed to prevent floods or provide reimbursements for damaged property.
They all spent anywhere from nine months to seven years in the shelter system before the Department of Social Services helped them find an apartment with City FHEPs housing vouchers. Most of the tenants in the 40-unit building can say the same, Ruperto surmised.
Steinmetz directed questions about the flooding to building superintendent Carlos Canete, who told THE CITY that he has done everything possible to mitigate the basement flooding. Canete blamed it on a citywide sewage system that backs up each time there is a storm.
Each apartment has a hot water tank with a drain below it. Tenants say when there is heavy rain, the water will rise up through the drain and spread across the apartment while tenants rapidly attempt to mop up or stop the flooding. The water also rises up through tenants’ toilets and bathtubs.
“Tenants tell you their side of the story, but they don’t tell you when I’m there from one o’clock in the morning to four in the morning bailing water out because it’s raining really hard,” Canete said.
“Unfortunately, they’re on the lower level. So because of the heavy downpours that we get, and the city don’t clean their sewage, the water is trying to go out but they can’t go out because there’s so much water and then it tends to back up.”
The city Department of Environmental Protection is responsible for New York City’s sewage and water system. A spokesperson for DEP, Edward Timbers, pointed THE CITY to 311 records for the most recent hard rainfall, on July 18, which showed it had rained one-third of an inch in Wakefield. According to that record, DEP “found all the sewers outside the building running properly and no flooding” in response to a tenant’s call about flooding in the building.
“Based on this information it would seem that there could be a problem with the building’s internal plumbing,” Timbers said. He added that many property owners install a “backflow prevention device” on their sewer service line between the building and the city’s sewer that only allows water to flow away from the building.
“It’s nasty,” said tenant Campbell. She spoke to THE CITY at her building in Wakefield while attending to her 3-year-old son, Keyari, who made himself a strawberry milk and read the children’s book “Joseph Had a Little Overcoat.”
“See, I got my baby, you feel me? And the water got shit from the sewer. And when it come up, you could smell it. You could smell the doo-doo, the pee. It’s disgusting.”
Campbell said flooding has damaged clothing and her son’s toys. When a storm is rolling in, she will sometimes take her son to spend the night at her mother’s home in Yonkers and return the next morning by herself to clean up the mess.
When a flood happens, superintendent Canete said he is there in the early morning hours and that the water would overflow into apartments even if there wasn’t a drain. He noted there is flooding all over nearby neighborhoods like White Plains, Yonkers and Mt. Vernon.
The residential building on White Plains Road does not appear on city-generated flood maps that show threats from stormwater.
As of June, landlords must tell prospective tenants about flood risks in a rental building, as THE CITY previously reported.
As the tenants contend with chronic flooding, landlord Steinmetz has notified tenants of rent hikes in the building.
Tenant Darryl Walker told THE CITY that the landlord told him earlier this summer that his portion of the rent, determined by DSS, will go up by 58%, from $424 to $727. He had not heard of any increases from DSS, which covers the rest of his $2,381 in monthly rent for a studio apartment.
“He just told me yesterday he’s ready to take me to court,” Walker said of his landlord on Monday. Walker routinely wakes up at 3 a.m. to work as a street cleaner in Brooklyn. “He don’t care. All he cares about is the rent.”
DSS told THE CITY that the agency, not the landlord, determines City FHEPS rent contributions based on salary or unearned income at the annual renewal. Voucher holders pay up to 30% of their income on rent.
Steinmetz directed THE CITY to his legal counsel for questions about the rent hike and the Housing Court lawsuit he has filed against Ruperto for not paying rent. His legal counsel said they could not answer any questions and directed THE CITY back to Steinmetz, who could not be reached for further comment.
Local elected officials Assemblymember Jeff Dinowitz and state Senator Jamaal Bailey told THE CITY that tenants had not reached out to them, but they are following up on the concerns.
“My constituent services team has initiated dialogue with several tenants and the landlord at 4761 White Plains Road to address the situation,” Bailey said. “We are committed to ensuring that appropriate measures are taken to address their concerns and that the property meets safety and habitability standards.”
Ruperto said he has had enough.
“I have to get out of here. I really need to get out. I want to leave,” he said.