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Troubled Bronx buildings flipped again

Troubled Bronx buildings flipped again

Dyan Kerr

Dyan Kerr deals with a wall of mold in her Williamsbridge apartment. (STEVEN GRABOSKI/The Bronx Ink)

With a single tap of the finger, mailboxes open at 1585 East 172nd Street in Soundview. It’s a trick anyone can pull off. “Social Security and Section 8 checks have gone missing,” said Andres Rios, the leader of the building’s tenant’s association. Broken mailboxes are just one problem facing Rios’ building, one of six notoriously distressed buildings in Highbridge, Morris Heights and Soundview. The buildings have been in disrepair since 2006, bouncing from owner to owner, each either without a plan to fix them or the money to carry the plans out. The buildings were sold again in September, this time to Bronx real estate agent Anthony Gazivoda, for $21.4 million. Gazivoda paid almost $7 million more than the previous owner, a surprisingly high purchase price that has tenants and housing advocates afraid that the new owner will find himself just as cash-strapped as the previous ones. “There is no financial story that justifies that sale,” said Dina Levy, executive director of the Urban Housing Assistance Board, the advocacy group that has been following the plight of the buildings. “You can twist it but you still can't justify it. There's no amount of rationalization that gets you to $21 million. That's troubling.” Anthony Gazivoda did not respond to numerous interview requests. From the outside, Gazivoda appears to have very few options for turning a profit on the buildings, which house low-income families who cannot afford to pay high rents. Gazivoda is also limited by city regulations, which prevent him from raising many of his tenants’ rents above a small percentage every year. With no clear profit prospects, tenants and housing advocates are worried that Gazivoda will not have the financial means to make the repairs that are desperately needed. Even worse, they fear that he will stop maintaining the buildings altogether, just like the previous owners. “I cannot believe we're here again,” said Levy. “Except this time it's more money, more money than has ever been put on these buildings.” The buildings, which sold for $13.5 million in 2010 to previous owner BXP 1 LLC, had 379 violations of the city’s housing code on Dec. 6. The violations range from broken windows and leaky ceilings to padlocked fire exits, entrances that do not lock, and exposed electrical wiring. Four of the buildings have lead-based paint violations.
History of Neglect Anthony Gazivoda is the fourth landlord in the past five years for the six Bronx buildings. The previous three have not been able to improve the dilapidated conditions in the buildings.
The problems are nothing new in the buildings, which have been poorly maintained since the now-defunct Ocelot group purchased them in 2006. After a bitter power struggle left Ocelot without the money to carry out repairs, the group became an absentee landlord, neglecting maintenance until things were so bad that the city took the group to court and ordered them to repair nearly 3,000 violations and pay a $60,000 fine. They were then sold in 2009 to Queens realtor Sam Suzuki of BXP 1 LLC. Suzuki ended up being no better than Ocelot; under his ownership the buildings racked up over 2,500 housing code violations and two of the Morris Heights buildings made the city’s most distressed list. Angered, the tenants of the Soundview buildings took Suzuki to court where a judge ordered that he make emergency repairs and sentenced him to jail when he failed to do so. The Manhattan-based Bluestone Group took control of the buildings in June of 2010, promising to make repairs and take a long-term interest in the buildings. Yet Bluestone orchestrated BXP 1’s sale of the buildings to Gazivoda a little over a year later, and angry tenants accused the company of doing just enough to sell the buildings for a profit. Tenants were initially weary when Gazivoda took over and reported that, like Bluestone before him, Gazivoda asked for a month to begin carrying out repairs. But since then, tenants in the Highbridge and Morris Heights buildings say that security has improved. “Most of these owners, when they first come here they promise one thing, but then it changes,” tenant Wilfreda Gonzalez said back in September. Gonzalez had high hopes when Gazivoda purchased her building at 1640 Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd. "This owner, at least I can say that he put in the cameras and intercoms.”
Anthony Gazivoda

Anthony Gazivoda

But more than a month later, the 11-year resident felt differently about ownership. A leak from the apartment above damaged her bathroom walls last summer, and the tiles have yet to be replaced. “They're giving me the runaround,” said Gonzalez, who has called the landlord repeatedly. “He bought the apartment and he has to fix it.” Gazivoda is both an important and mysterious figure in the Bronx real estate market. The 51-year-old Albanian realtor, who sits on the business development board at Hudson Valley Bank, has been in the real estate business since 1978. Since then, city records show that over 40 real estate companies tied to the Gazivoda family have come share the same 3200 Cruger Ave. address. Altogether, Gazivoda and his family own almost 40 buildings in the Bronx.
Bronx Albanians move into real estate Albanians first migrated to America in 1876, according to Constantine Demo, author of The Albanians in America. But they began to move to New York City in big numbers in the 1960s, settling in the Bronx around Morris Park, Arthur Avenue and Pelham Parkway, said Ismer Mjeku, the publisher of the Albanian Yellow Pages, an annual guide for Albanian personal and commercial contacts all across the countryAs Albanian immigrants were settling in these Italian enclaves of the Bronx, they concentrated in the food and restaurant industry, which until then had been mainly run by Italian families. Gradually Albanians took over the business and, in the 1980s, displaced many Italian owners from those restaurants.In their pursuit of business diversification, Albanians got into real estate and started amassing properties. According to Mjeku, today the Albanian community owns almost a third of all the apartment buildings in the Bronx, although he said there is no official data to support his claim.The 2011 edition of the Albanian Yellow Pages shows at least 26 Albanian-owned real estate companies operating in the Bronx and Mt. Vernon. -Mahmoud Sabbagh
Despite owning so much land, very little is known about Gazivoda himself, and the lack of information is worrying to housing advocates. “Who these people are is not clear to us,” said Levy, who has worked at the Urban Housing Assistance Board for seven years. Levy added that Gazivoda “has a very insular network.” Gazivoda has a mixed record as a landlord. Some of his buildings have no violations, others have as many as 98. And though none of the buildings are as bad as his latest purchases, tenants in his more troubled buildings paint a negative picture of the landlord. Dyan Kerr lives in one of Gazivoda’s older properties with her family at 678 East 225th St. in Williamsbridge, where violations decreased from 58 to 26 from October to December. Despite the drop in violations, Kerr said she has been dealing with mice and mold for over a year. “I’m tired of this place,” said Kerr, who has inch-long mold dots clearly visible in her bathroom. Kerr said that management has cleaned the mold in the past, but it kept growing back. In addition, Kerr revealed brown filth in her kitchen cabinet that she said were mice droppings. “This is how we’re living now because people don’t want to fix nothing,” Kerr said. Bathroom mold is also a problem a few miles away in Belmont, where Shantelle Guzman lives in another of Gazivoda’s older properties. “They paint over the mold and the super doesn’t fix anything, he doesn’t live here,” said Guzman, who lives at 611 East 182nd St. Guzman’s apartment also has holes in the walls, where she said mice enter her one-bedroom apartment. She is also upset about shoddy heating that forces her and other residents to use their ovens for heat and an irregular flow of hot water in the building and would like to leave. Back in Soundview, moving has never been an option for Rios, who has led his tenant’s association through five different landlords in 14 years. If necessary, Rios is gearing up for the next battle. “I like to bark and bite,” said Rios, who showed Gazivoda the faulty mailboxes in front of a group of tenants at a meeting on Nov. 9. Before exiting, Gazivoda assured his tenants that the mailbox problem, as well as the dysfunctional fire alarms, would be addressed. “He said it would be taken care of but that it’s not going to be done quick,” he added, discouraged. “I guess to them it wasn’t a priority.”

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Budget cuts hit pro bono legal services

Legal services providers rallied last month for state funding for foreclosure prevention services. (CELIA LLOPIS-JEPSEN/Bronx Ink)

Room 607 at Bronx County Courthouse isn’t a typical courtroom. The judge’s bench is empty, and the jury box, too. A fax machine stands where a court reporter might otherwise sit, and filing cabinets line one of the walls. A dozen homeowners and bank lawyers are waiting for their cases to come up. When they do, they walk to one of two desks set up at opposite ends of the cavernous room to talk not to a judge but to a court attorney. These are foreclosure conferences. Last year alone, banks filed more than 2,500 foreclosures in the Bronx, which has the lowest home ownership rate in the city, but the highest foreclosure rate. While the banks have lawyers to make their case at court, most of the homeowners don’t. “Foreclosure is all about power dynamics,” said Justin Haines, sitting in a spartan office in a converted courtroom adjacent to Room 607. Haines heads this office — Legal Services NYC’s foreclosure unit — which offers free legal counsel to homeowners who risk losing their homes. “When I first switched over to foreclosures, it was hard for me to decipher some of the exotic loans these banks are offering,” said Haines, who previously represented tenants in Housing Court cases. As the economy has worsened, demand has soared for services offered by nonprofits like Legal Services NYC, which provide legal counsel to low-income Americans in civil matters like foreclosure. But the same struggling economy has also hit these nonprofits hard, squeezing their main funding sources: federal and state budgets and special lawyers’ accounts that pay interest toward civil legal aid. In the latest blow, on Nov. 17, Congress slashed $56 million in funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the congressionally-mandated agency that doles out grants to 136 nonprofits nationwide to address the “justice gap” — the US population that cannot afford counsel for civil legal matters. Among those nonprofits is Legal Services NYC. “These cuts are devastating,” says Jill Siegel, the deputy project director of Legal Services’ Bronx division. Legal Services already suffered a 4 percent budget cut this year and will lose another $800,000 in the next, Siegel said. Worse yet, it will lose 20 percent of its LSC funding for 2013 to 2014 under changes to the federal formula for distributing the funds, which currently pay for about 44 percent of pro bono legal services nationwide. The 15 percent cutback in LSC grant money last month comes on top of this. All of these cuts will reverberate in the Bronx, where demand for civil legal aid in the Bronx is growing, said Siegel, whose organization handles everything from wrongful cancellation of public assistance to custody battles in domestic violence cases. Navigating civil courts without legal assistance is like running an “obstacle course,” she said. Haines’ foreclosure unit is fighting for refunding of a state grant. Last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo cut a special budget for legal services combatting foreclosures. Late last month, Haines and others from Legal Services NYC and other housing counseling and legal service providers held a rally on the steps of Manhattan Supreme Court to ask the state assembly and governor to put foreclosure prevention back in the budget. At the Bronx courthouse, Haines’ foreclosure office is quiet. On a morning in November, a middle-aged couple sat huddled over papers, waiting their turn for a consultation. Fliers on the wall warned homeowners behind on their mortgages against loan modification scams — agencies that promise they can stop foreclosure on a home in return for steep fees. Though there were only a few walk-ins, the office’s three attorneys and two paralegals had full caseloads. “I wish I had three times as much staff,” said Haines, who worked through lunch. The couple waited two hours before he was able to see them. Haines believes providing legal counsel for families facing foreclosure pays off for the government and community. “If you talk about economic recovery, it erodes the tax base when houses are empty,” he said. While most of New York’s homeless population — currently at record-high levels — have been evicted from apartments rather than houses, in the Bronx, about 10 percent come from foreclosures, he said. Many are homeowners who’ve lost their jobs. Others fall behind when tenants they rent rooms to lose their jobs and start missing their monthly payments. Often Haines represents homeowners in their absence. “In foreclosure, people are often dealing with underemployment,” he said. “There are so many court appearances, and if they miss work that often, they could really get into trouble.” At the same time that funding cuts pummel Legal Services, other providers in New York are suffering, too — even those not dependent on congressional allocations. Legal Aid Services, which does not receive LSC funding, lost millions in state funding in recent years and hundreds of thousands in city funding. To cope with the cuts, it shed dozens of staff positions from its already overtaxed civil division. For every person the civil practice helps, another eight are turned away. That reflects a nationwide phenomenon. Legal services providers across the country trimmed their payrolls in recent years as government and IOLTA funding shrank. IOLTA (interest on lawyer trust account) funds, or, in New York, IOLA (interest on lawyers’ accounts), are funds that collect interest from escrow accounts where lawyers hold clients’ money. Back in the heady days of the real estate boom, these funds were raking in money. Trust accounts seemed an ideal solution to fund civil legal services without costing taxpayers a dime. “I started in 2005,” Haines said, referring to his previous job at the Legal Aid Society. “And in 2007, we were all dreaming, finding the holes in our work. We could actually design what we needed.” Then the bubble burst, and legal service providers found themselves struggling just to maintain the same level of services. At the foreclosure unit, the understaffed team allocates its time carefully. “People come in, sign in, give us information about their case,” Haines said. “We help them prepare pro se papers” to defend themselves. Often their help stops there. “We really only get involved if there are significant defenses.” The situation is similar at Housing Court and for public assistance cases. In public assistance cases, having an advocate can make all the difference. In May, the Urban Justice Center, another New York provider of pro bono legal services, found that 86 percent of decisions to cut off public assistance are cancelled when challenged in hearings. Many of the cancellations can be traced to simple clerical errors at the Human Resources Administration, yet resolving them can be tricky. Still, few nonprofits have units dedicated to handling public assistance cases, and those that do can’t meet the demand. “We have to decide which cases would be more difficult for an unrepresented person,” said Maryanne Joyce, who works at Bronx Legal Services’ public benefits unit. Joyce represents appellants who have had their public assistance revoked. One problem for Joyce’s unit is that many legal services programs are paid for by targeted funds — a mixed blessing. An example is the New York State Assembly’s budget for helping homeowners stave off foreclosures. While Legal Services is grateful for such injections, targeted funding tends to cluster around a few popular causes. Public assistance isn’t one of them. “It’s not an area that people find compelling,” said Joyce, whose unit has just two staff lawyers and one paralegal. “So it’s not easy to fundraise.” That’s where LSC funds become all the more precious. The LSC funds are unrestricted. That means Legal Services NYC can apply the money where it’s needed most, as long as it serves the population that qualifies for legal services. Clients must fall below the income threshold of 125 percent of the national poverty line, or about $28,000 per year for a family of four. In its most recent report on the state of the nation’s justice gap in 2009, the LSC cited studies indicating, not surprisingly, that litigants with legal counsel fare better than those without. Yet on average, LSC-funded programs turn away one client for every client they accept nationwide. And legal services programs as a whole — including those not funded by the LSC — serve only about one-fifth of the needs of low-income Americans. The consequences of this are visible at Bronx Housing Court. On a typical day, the courtrooms and halls alike are packed with tenants waiting their turn before a judge. Sometimes the line to enter the courthouse winds out the door and along the front of the building. While the vast majority of the tenants do not have legal counsel, the opposite holds true for the landlords. “The landlords pay $150 an hour for a lawyer,” said Wanda Salaman, director of Mothers on the Move, a local nonprofit in Hunts Point. “The tenants can’t afford that.” Tenants in the area often turn to Salaman’s group for advice on eviction cases, and Salaman refers them to legal services providers for help. But the options in the Bronx fall far short of meeting the community’s needs, and with the impending LSC cuts and funding redistribution, that is unlikely to improve. At the rally outside Supreme Court last month, state senators who opposed cutting the foreclosure prevention budget pleaded for refunding the services.
Compared to the losses in tax revenue and property value that foreclosures represent, “$25 million is a drop in the bucket,” said Adriano Espaillat, who represents Manhattan. Senator Jeffrey Klein of the Bronx and Westchester said skimping on foreclosure prevention services “makes no economic sense.” A protestor in the crowd behind him held up a sign that read simply: “Every home saved = a stronger economy.” In the Bronx, banks have moved to foreclose on another 260 homes in the past three months, Klein’s office said. Citywide, the figure is 1,800. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” Klein told the crowd.  

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Real Azteca serves up the real deal

Fresh corn tortillas are made to order at Real Azteca, an authentic Mexican taqueria in Hunts Point. BIANCA CONSUNJI/The Bronx Ink

It was 3 p.m., that awkward hour between lunch and dinner when most restaurants slow down. Even the Bronx’s best-known pizzerias on Arthur Avenue had emptied out. But halfway across the borough on the same Saturday afternoon, the cramped but cozy Real Azteca was bustling. The counter seating was full, and a steady stream of customers arrived for takeout. Behind the counter, four cooks prepared a wide variety of traditional Michoacán dishes in full view of the customers. The dishes are nothing like the Tex-Mex burritos that generally pass for “Mexican food” in the U.S. Real Azteca offers huitlacoche quesadillas with a rich, ground mushroom-and-corn filling, soft goat-meat tacos, seafood soup with fresh cilantro, and steak with prickly-pear cactus and homemade guacamole.
And the neighborhood seems to appreciate it. “We’re always busy,” said cook Patricia Valle. “Thank the Lord.” Real Azteca is family-run. Valle’s brother-in-law Francisco Ortega opened this restaurant 15 years ago, and Valle and her sister Graciela Ortega cook. The family are Tarasco Indians, and pride themselves on serving authentic cuisine from their native Michoacán, a state on the southwest coast of Mexico. Quesadillas are their signature dish. A young cook scoops a handful of dough from a giant tub and places it in a press brought specially from Mexico. “You can’t buy a press like this here,” said Francisco Ortega, whose brother has opened a second restaurant near St. Barnabas Hospital. “It’s not hard to make tortillas, but I haven’t seen other restaurants doing it.” Ortega prides himself on fresh ingredients. The cooks grind jalapeños and other chilies to make their own salsas and press hundreds of tortillas each day. The extra care makes all the difference, said Valle, who made her living as a cook back home as well. When three other Mexican restaurants opened nearby, all three closed within a year. None of them used fresh ingredients, Valle said, adding with a grimace that she suspects they heated dishes in a microwave. Seated at a table, Ricardo Garcia from Guatemala is one of the restaurant’s repeat visitors. “The quesadillas are best,” Garcia said. “I come all the time.”
Around 4:30 p.m., there was a short lull. A police officer dropped by to pick up an order for the 41st Precinct. Graciela Ortega and then Valle each took turns sitting down to a quick meal at the counter. A tired Valle smiled and pointed to her bowl. “This is the first chance I’ve had all day to eat something,” she said with a hint of satisfaction. “It’s been so busy.” Real Azteca, 1013 E. 163rd Street, 718-860-1566 By subway: Hunts Point Avenue on the No. 6 train.  

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Company plans electric truck factory in Port Morris, NY Daily News

The city approved $1.7 million in tax breaks last week for a company planning to open an electric truck factory in Port Morris. Smith Electric Vehicles is the world's top maker of electric trucks and fills orders from companies including Coca-Cola and Frito-Lay, the NY Daily News reported.

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New landlord for building with hip-hop past, NY Daily News

A Bronx apartment building with a special place in the history of hip-hop went up for sale last week, the NY Daily News reported. Workforce Housing Advisors bought the building on Sedgwick Avenue at foreclosure auction and pledged to maintain affordable rents and add a culture center.

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Bronx Pride opens new headquarters, NY Post

Bronx Pride is opening its new headquarters this week at the Rev. Ruben Diaz Gardens on Kelly Street, the NY Post reported. Ironically, the building's namesake, Senator Diaz, is a prominent opponent of same-sex marriages.

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Suspect arrested in ER shooting, NY Daily News

Police have arrested a suspect in a shooting that wounded two at Bronx Lebanon Hospital this week. Police say Michael Wayman, 29, fired several shots inside the hospital at a member of a rival gang, the NY Daily News reported.  

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Kingsbridge students prepare for Paris trip, NY Times

More than 30 fifth and sixth graders at P.S. 86 are heading to Europe next Friday for a 10-day tour of France, Belgium and the Netherlands. The school tries to send students on trips every year, paid for in part by fundraising, the NY Times reported.

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