The forgotten building

The public housing building at 1471-73 Watson Ave in Soundview

The public housing building at 1471-73 Watson Ave in Soundview

When Jennifer Baez’s daughter Paris was two months old, her public housing apartment in Soundview was so infested with mice that they ended up chewing holes through all of her baby’s clothes.

“I had to go, with what little money I had, and buy more for her,” Baez said, as she gently rocked the stroller that held the nine-month-old toddler.

Until June, Baez had lived with her family at the Sonia Sotomayor housing building at 1471-73 Watson Ave. in the Soundview section of the Bronx. Now she’s just visiting. Her family, unable to receive a transfer, remains in the building. “I couldn’t raise my daughter here,” Baez said, motioning to a dirty corridor and roaches crawling by the door of her family’s apartment. “No matter how hard you try to clean your house, the mice will not go away.”

Baez is not the only resident of the 40-year-old building to take matters into her own hands. Frustrated with a two-year wait for basic repairs, many of her low-income neighbors have resorted to finding ways to make the repairs themselves. Others have given up and applied to be transferred.

An outpost of the Sonia Sotomayor housing complex, 1471 Watson Ave is considered the “forgotten building” by residents. It sits more than 10 blocks away from the sprawling complex that was renamed in June for the U.S. Supreme Court judge who grew up in this Soundview project.

This building at 1471 Watson Ave. is just one of a number of troubled buildings around the city. The chair of a council that represents public housing tenants said the backlog of repair work was city wide. “The repair issues are very far behind schedule,” said Reginald Bowman. “People are very frustrated because it’s taking too long to get certain things done.” If not addressed, he speculated, the deferred maintenance would cause “a cascading problem of repairs.”

The last annual federal inspection of the Sonia Sotomayor complex completed last year reflected these complaints. The 33-building complex received a 68 percent rating from the federal housing authority, only 8 percentage points above failing.  “Building 32”, the official name of 1471 Watson Ave., received low scores for peeling paint, damaged walls, broken ceiling tiles, water and mildew damage. It also noted that roaches were visible in the kitchen of one of the apartments inspected.

The six-story building is one of more than 2,000 owned by the New York City Housing Authority, which was provided $3.5 billion this year by the city and federal government to maintain approximately 182,000 units. The property at 1471 Watson Ave. has lost more than a third of its market value since 2006, and is now worth just over $1.8 million. Funding cuts for the Housing Authority had meant a reduction in repair staff and the budget for repairing the aging buildings, Bowman said. “It is my belief that in the next cycle, the next annual plan of NYCHA, efforts are going to be made to create a more aggressive restoration and repair process,” he said.

Sheila Stainback, a spokesperson for the Authority, declined to answer specific questions relating to the building, citing a high volume of media inquiries. However, in a written statement, she said the Authority received inadequate funding to cope with maintaining two-thirds of the Authority’s buildings that are more than 40 years old. The Authority’s budget deficit for 2010 is projected to be $137 million, and it is predicted to remain in the red for the next four years. “The Authority respects and understands our residents’ frustration over the current backlog of repair and maintenance work,” the statement read.

The statement is cold comfort for Carmen Hernandez, a street evangelist, LGBT activist and long-time resident of the building. Hernandez zips around on a mobility scooter. Fibromyalgia and type 2 diabetes make it painful for her to walk much anymore. It was not long before the elevator door shut on her scooter, a common occurrence, she said. She had to buy a new, smaller scooter to avoid getting trapped in the door, something that had already happened three times during her 15-year occupancy of the building.

But poor health has not dampened Hernandez’s determination to fight for better conditions in the building. She is outraged that residents who pay their rent — a third of their income whether they are on public assistance or working — are paying for repairs on apartments they don’t own. The maximum income to be eligible for public housing for a family of two people is $30,700. For a family of four it is $38,400.

There is no opportunity for the repair bills to be refunded by the Housing Authority, said Geraldine Bellamy, the 15-year president of the building’s residents’ association. “A lot of people in here are frustrated,” she said. “They’ve been in here a long time and they have to pay for a contractor to come and do things.” She was considering hiring an outside contractor herself, to work on her leaking bathroom ceiling.

Mariam Davila obviously takes a lot pride in her apartment, in the 1471 wing of the building. Her maroon walls, decorated tastefully with pictures and masks, are a stark contrast to the grubby linoleum in the corridor outside. The 57-year-old, who has lived in the building for 20 years, paid out of her own pocket for repairs.

Through a Spanish translator, Davila complained about the decline in cleanliness in the building. She stooped to rummage in a low kitchen cabinet and finally found what she was looking for: a sealed jam jar full of water. Congealed at the bottom was a thick gunk which, when shaken, turned the water an opaque brown. Until recently, this was coming out of her kitchen and bathroom taps, she said.

“They must know the conditions, they ain’t doing nothing about it,” Hernandez said. Her partner complains about walking through the building with her because she is a magnet for other residents’ complaints. “They call me the mayor here,” she added.

One of those residents is Ramona Mantalvo, 62, who lives with her 95-year-old father. Until a few months ago, Mantalvo cleaned the fifth floor hallway and the elevator herself each week. Now she just supplies Clorox, floor wax and other products to the regular cleaner so he can keep the floor to the level of cleanliness she likes.

But the rodent problems, combined with noise from an upstairs neighbor, have made her decide to leave. The exterminators used to come every two or three months, other residents confirm. Then it was every six months. Now the exterminators promised for October have yet to arrive. Mantalvo, who has lived in the building for 12 years, has applied for a transfer, but it is taking some time. “I want to move out but I can’t find a place,” she said explained.

All this comes as no surprise to Bellamy, who said she still had holes in the wall she first requested to be filled when she moved in 25 years ago. When residents call the Housing Authority communications center to complain, they are told they will have to wait to 2012, she said. “We have gaping holes underneath the windows because the moisture softens up the plaster and it’s all flaking off,” she said. “Because [NYCHA] don’t have that many plasterers, they don’t have that many painters, they don’t have anything, they don’t have the money.”

Courtney Saunders, the site manager for the Sonia Sotomayor complex, declined to comment on the complaints or the length of time it was taking to complete repairs. He said he had not received any complaints from residents. But Bellamy disputed his denial, adding that she had complained to Saunders on numerous occasions – two or three times alone recently about problems with sewerage that led to a stench in the basement of the building. “He’s not helpful or nothing,” she said.

The residents of 1471 Watson Avenue are not alone in being frustrated with long waits for repairs and rodent extermination. Runa Rajagopal, a senior staff attorney at the not for profit legal firm MFY Legal Services, said it is a problem she has witnessed in all five boroughs. MFY specialize in providing legal services for New Yorkers who can not afford it — Rajagopal specifically advises clients with mental health issues and has become a specialist in dealing with NYCHA.

Rajagopal said she believed the housing conditions she has seen throughout New York is a product of underfunding, understaffing and a lack of training. “I’ve found that a lot of people who work in the management office aren’t aware of NYCHA’s procedure for doing things, but if they are they don’t follow them.”

“Everything with NYCHA right now is at a standstill,” she said. “A lot of people try to reach out to agencies like ours, to city council members, to the media, that’s probably the best way to get them to do what they’re supposed to do.”

That is exactly what Carmen Hernandez is hoping. A few months ago, some of the building’s residents approached Bronx News 12, which sent a camera crew to the building. Now she said she has had enough of the building — her family is on a four year waiting list to be transferred. “It used to be a good building; I was very impressed,” she said. “Now after 10 years it’s down the drain.”

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