It's been four weeks now since Hurricane Sandy swept through New York and New Jersey, wreaking havoc in low lying areas with wave surges from five to fifteen feet. Words like Sea Gate and Ocean Village are now household names. But some of Sandy's hardest hit victims are also those who are hardest to see, due an existence that struggles to stay off the grid. The Latino community of Zone A has been devastated by the storm, with many families losing everything they own and with very little hope for help.
The Brighton Beach area makes up one half of Zone A, Brooklyn's low-lying area and mandatory evacuation zone. This area is often referred to as “Little Odessa” due to the large number of immigrants from the former Soviet who arrived in the 1970s when the USSR relaxed its emigration policies. But this area is also home to a large and growing Latino community, as well as many Pakistani and Turkish immigrants. On Neptune Avenue you might pass in quick succession a halal store, a bodega, and a Georgian bakery.
Though the neighborhood boasts a leveling of cultures at the culinary level, it is surprisingly segregated. Many former Soviet immigrants are now home owners, or live in large apartment buildings and new condo constructions, like the Oceana, that loom over Brighton Beach Avenue and the shorelines. On the other hand, Brighton's newer immigrants, especially those of Latino descent, tend to live north of Brighton Beach Avenue, quite literally the other side of the elevated train tracks. Census data shows that in the last decade, the Mexican population of four census tracts north of Brighton Beach Avenue grew by 36 percent. This growth in population created opportunities for property owners to take advantage of a demand for housing. This section of the neighborhood—which boasts three times as many renters as owners—is comprised predominantly of smaller, two-story, detached homes and small bungalows, where one or two (or sometimes more) families rent.
Under the water-line
These bungalows sit atop cellars or basements, which are rented almost exclusively by recent Latino immigrants living literally underground. Some basements are legal; others aren't. Basements can be illegal for a number of reasons. Basements are called “cellars” when more than half of the apartment is underground, and those areas can't be occupied legally, because of hazards such as poor ventilation and fire hazards. Even potentially legal basements might be barred by zoning roles that limit population density. Other basements might meet city regulations, but in order to be legal they must be registered, a process which costs about $10,000 for the owner (and jacks up the rent).
A whole basement apartment usually rents for something like $800. Immigrant families can also rent illegal “cellar” apartments illegally converted to S.R.O.'s—Single Room Occupancies—housing more residents than the legally permitted “one family.” These rooms go for about $400 a month.
These basement apartments took the brunt of the hit that Hurricane Sandy leveled at South Brooklyn when it flooded Zone A. The combined surge of the Atlantic Ocean from the south and the Sheepshead Bay Canal from the east converged onto Brighton Beach Avenue with a wave that reached five feet in height, completely submerging streets, cars, and every basement apartment in Brighton Beach.
Families have had the entire contents of their basement apartments wiped out. Everything was destroyed, from furniture, to toys, to clothing and books. “The community is very devastated,” Pastor Josu Ayala of the Church of the Evangelical Mission on Neptune Avenue says. He has administered to the Coney Island area for 10 years, and says he knows personally of at least one hundred families who have lost everything. But the actual numbers are impossible to estimate. Most of the Latino community attends a large Catholic church on Oceanview Avenue, whose Deacon Manuel gives similarly staggering numbers. He says that because the community is so localized, people don't have family in other neighborhoods to go to, and are being forced to wait out the storm's effects in undesirable situations.
Temporary help, longer struggles
Ayala set up a shelter in neighboring Bensonhurst to provide clothing, food, water, diapers and baby formula for those hardest hit. Other religious groups in the neighborhood have reported the devastation wrought on the Latino community, such as the Shorefront Y, a Jewish community center, which reported that 60 percent of the people taking part in their food drive were Latino, or the Chabad of Brighton Beach, who reported that 75 percent of people in line for the clothing drive they hosted were Latino immigrants.
Chani Okonov, director of Mazel Day School, which hosted the clothing drive, reports seeing a family with young children and a baby walking by the synagogue. “They did not have shoes and were wearing slippers in the freezing cold weather,” she says. She invited them to participate in the clothing drive, telling them that everything was free, and when she asked them what they needed, the mother “just began to cry. She had lost everything.”
A group called Muslim Humanity has been stationed on Neptune Avenue, handing out supplies and free medical services. The National Guard and the Red Cross have also been a presence in the area.
But as families attempt to regroup, further struggles await. In order for a basement apartment that has been submerged in water to be habitable again, it has to be drained and dehumidified and the Sheetrock replaced in order to prevent mold.
Because they rent from absentee landlords, many basement dwellers were left to fend for themselves. Some were able to procure generators to drain the water, but many reported draining the water by hand with buckets. Some simply waited for the sewers, which backed up during the flooding, to return to normal levels and take the water with them. These apartments, in some cases wet for days, are likely still at risk of mold poisoning.
Landlords appear to have little reason to fear enforcement actions against them, because many have lived outside the building code for years. A man who identified himself only as “Pablo” and who works as a day laborer in the neighborhood, speaking through an interpreter, says he lives in an illegal SRO on Neptune Avenue. Repeated complaints had been lodged with the Department of Buildings from neighbors witnessing the many unrelated occupants of the basement, but the landlord knew when to expect inspectors, and no one had permitted them entry, according to Pablo. When they finally did gain access on August 28, city records indicate that they found “no violation warranted for complaint at time of inspection”
The basement is legal for one family only, but on November 18 a reporter went inside and found what was clearly an SRO there—seven apartment units, each inhabited by a single male or a family, with room for a bed and nothing more, and a small lock on the door to indicate a separate dwelling.
Pablo said he and other tenants drained the basement themselves, though another tenant, Neil, insisted that the water had gone away by itself. Neil spent the storm on a chair covered in a blanket on the first floor just inside the door. When asked if his residence was legal or illegal, he said first “I heard it is illegal,” and then admitted, “I know it is illegal.” They were still living with no heat, and a rancid smell was being counteracted by burning incense. The landlord had not been to visit or offered any assistance, tenants said. She is known by Pablo and Neil only as a “woman who lives in New Jersey.” When asked what her plans were for renovating her Brooklyn apartment, she had no comment.
Some landlords are reportedly using the storm as an excuse to withhold security deposits from tenants forced to leave their homes. Delfina, a young Mexican woman with two children who used to live on Neptune Avenue in a basement apartment, says she lost everything in the flood. She spent the storm with her sister on higher ground, and is still staying there now. She says her landlady is renovating the apartment, but wants Delfina and her family to move out, Delfina assumes in order to keep the security deposit to pay for the damages the storm wrought. Delfina does not have legal status in this country, and is scared to go to authorities.
Another woman, Isabel, is still living in a basement apartment on Brighton 2nd which she herself drained with buckets. She has lived there for five years, but her landlady is refusing to dehumidify, replace the Sheetrock, or return Isabel's security deposit so Isabel can find another place to live. Isabel is also without papers.
Challenges getting aid
On Thanksgiving, Ayala was at his church on Neptune Avenue helping people fill out FEMA reports. FEMA encourages all people to fill out reports, even persons without status, who can use the social security numbers of children born in the US. FEMA provides disaster aid to “help renters displaced because of disaster damage,” according to their website. They also offer assistance to people needing to replace “personal property, such as furniture and appliances.” But collecting this aid is a different matter.
Jaselin, a young woman who lived in a basement apartment with her husband and baby until Hurricane Sandy, has been in Brighton Beach for 11 years, and spent the past year in the basement apartment on Neptune Avenue. Her apartment, unbeknownst to her, is an illegal conversion. Her landlord has refused to help with draining and dehumidifying the apartment, she says.
Jaselin, with the help of Ayala, filled out a FEMA claim through her daughter, but when an agent came to assess the damages to her and her family, the landlord came running down to the basement apartment. “The inspector came in, and asked me if I was living in the apartment,” Jaselin says, through an interpreter. “I said ‘Yes!' but the owner said, they're not living here, and chased him out. The inspector said, ‘I am an agent!' and the owner said, ‘No notes in here.' It made me feel so bad, because they denied that I live here—but I pay rent every month.”
As a result, the FEMA claim was denied, and Jaselin will not receive renter's aid.