A water pipe in Rita Thomas's basement is leaking so badly it is threatening to drown Thomas and her husband financially.
"Right now, they're billing me for over $44,000," Rita Thomas said. "I don't think it's right."
The couple's problems began two summers ago, when the city's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) sent them a notice, warning they were using so much water they should have a plumber check for a leak. Thomas says she took action right away.
"I saw the leak. It was a lot of water down there," Thomas said. "I called a plumber, and I had it fixed, and I had a receipt, and they gave me a note saying that I should report it to them and they will take the price down."
But the DEP said the leak was not repaired for nearly a year, resulting in a whopping $44,064.60 charge.
"It's really difficult for any senior who's trying to remain in their home in New York City to be hit with that kind of bill," said Scott Kohanowski, a lawyer for the City Bar Justice Center.
Thomas and her husband, Cecil, are in their 70s and have lived on Avenue B in Canarsie for 40 years.
Kohanowski helped them apply for relief under a city leak forgiveness program. But to qualify, homeowners must apply within 120 days of their first high bill. The DEP said the couple missed that deadline.
With Kohanowski's assistance, the DEP agreed to slice their bill almost in half and allow them to pay it over 10 years, plus interest. Their new bill is now $23,000.
"It's a lot of money," Rita Thomas said. "Even if I had a hotel here, I don't think it would have been that much money."
The DEP said rules are rules, explaining that property owners are responsible for checking their bills and fixing leaks in a timely manner.
To Kohanowsi, the DEP should be doing more. "Whether it's a senior, if it's a person living with a disability, the city and state agencies should be doing everything to keep people in place and facilitate them remaining in place as they age," the lawyer said.
He recommends that vulnerable residents contact groups like the Center for NYC Neighborhoods for free legal help.
The Thomases are seeking a further bill reduction. Without it, they say they will have trouble staying afloat.