Visions of Poverty

From the rooftops in the Bronx, Manhattan's skyscrapers look like toys

From the rooftops in the Bronx, Manhattan's skyscrapers look like toys on the horizon.

by Fred Dreier

I have stood inside tin shanties in a South African township, strolled through decaying Costa Rican slums and ridden my bicycle past men burning garbage piles in rural China. But when I picture an image that best captures the squalor of poverty, I see Justina Turull´s apartment in the Bronx.

Moldy, stained mattresses cover a dusty floor filled with holes. Turull and her five children need a flashlight to use the single bathroom – she can´t remember when the lights went out in there. Flies hover over stacks of putrid diapers in a bedroom filled with boxes.

”The cockroaches walk around this house like they pay rent here,” Turull told me.

I met Turull this past Thursday. She is 36, and both she and her husband, who was not home at the time, are jobless and receive unemployment insurance. Turull has lived in the building for seven years. She receives federal housing assistance in the form of a Section 8 voucher. She said she pays about $85 of the $1100 monthly rent.

Turull said she had to stop working as a home care assistant due to a heart problem. She has five children, including a set of one-year-old twins and an infant, which lay atop the dirty mattress when I walked through the apartment.

I knocked on Turull´s door asking about conditions inside the four-story apartment building where she lives, which is located at 422 178th Street in the Fordham neighborhood. She and a handful of her neighbors told a story of neglect and despair. They went through the winter of 2008-09 without heat or hot water.

Half of the building´s 12 apartments are vacant and under construction, but nothing is being done to fix the occupied aparments. They have had three different superintendents in the last year, and none of them have addressed the services the building needs.

”One time a health inspector told me to just move away, that the building was going to fall apart,” she said.

Like many renters in the Bronx, Turull can follow the roots of her apartment´s problems all the way to Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Her building is one of over 20 tenements in the Bronx formerly owned by Ocelot, the company which abandoned the portfolio in late 2008.

Ocelot´s story of rapid rise and catastrophic crash is an all-too common tale from the sub-prime mortgage meltdown of 2008. The firm borrowed millions from Deutsche Bank and elsewhere to gobble up properties in the affordable housing sector, primarily in the rough and tumble Bronx. When the housing market tumbled, Ocelot was like many real estate firms unable to keep up maintenance of its buildings. It became one of the worst slumlords in the Bronx.

Turull told me she remembers that time all too clearly. The buildings’ boilers ran out of oil one day, and nobody bought new fuel. Her super, who had started a project removing lead paint from her walls, disappeared and never came back to finish. The hot water stopped running.

“Someone told me the building was sold. I was like, ‘You must be Donald Trump´s stupid son if you buy this building,’” Turull said.

The building went through a series of court-approved sales, the details of which are reported in our main story, “When the Housing Bubble Burst in the Bronx.” We do know that Fannie Mae foreclosed on the loans for most of the buildings this spring. Then over the summer, the building´s current owner, Five Star Realty, took over.

I called Five Star and spoke with Steve Porter, a manager who could comment on the situation. He told me his company has already spent several thousand dollars renovating the building´s roof and front exterior. He said the grand plan is to renovate the empty apartments first, then move the existing tenants into the new ones.

“Each apartment needs new electricity and pipes,” Porter said. “But we can only do the ones that are vacant right now.”

I have ridden my bicycle past the building on Park Avenue most weeks, and I have returned on two occasions to watch the renovations. So far Porter has kept to his word. There is a team of contractors gutting the ground-floor apartments, putting in new drywall, wiring and pipes.

Whether Five Star indeed moves the existing tenants into the refurbished apartments is left to be seen. Turull told me she isn´t buying it. She said after eight years, she plans to leave the apartment as soon as the government approves a transfer of her Section 8 voucher to a new building.

After I left Turull´s apartment I climbed up the stairs and onto the rooftop. Like Porter said, there is new tar and paint on the top. From the rooftop, I could look down at the other drab low-income tenement houses that sprawl across the central Bronx.

I could also look south across the Hudson and see the skyscrapers of Wall Street standing on the horizon like expensive toys. They looked close enough to touch.

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