Tag Archive | "East Tremont"

On the Corner: Day laborers hit hard by the recession

Roberto Pareja wait for work on a chilly October morning. Photo: Yiting Sun

Roberto Pareja waits for work on a chilly October morning. Photo: Yiting Sun

At 7:15 on a chilly October morning, a 33-year-old Mexican immigrant leaned against the shuttered door of Kennedy Fried Chicken, a worn-out backpack filled with wrenches and tape lay next to his feet.

Roberto Pareja positioned himself across the street from the Benjamin Moore paint store in East Tremont as he had done nearly every day for years, hoping one of the contractors leaving the store would hire him.

Two hours later it began to rain, and the father of two ducked under a deli storefront. None of the customers needed his help that day, nor the help of 20 other day laborers waiting with him. But he did not want to leave.

For Pareja, no work meant worrying about his $960 monthly rent, food for the six people in his family, and dolls for his young girls.

Pareja is one of almost 100 day laborers who have congregated for years on the corner of East 180th Street and Third Avenue. On a nice sunny day, almost all of them will gather, but on this rainy morning, only 20 tried their luck. The New York Immigration Coalition estimates there are about 10,000 day laborers in the city. Some of them have been in the underground labor pool for years. Others are newcomers driven here by the recession.

“There is less work this year than last year,” said Corinne Beth, an immigration lawyer that supports day laborers on behalf of the Westchester Hispanic Coalition, a not-for-profit organization. She added that with the group of day laborers she helps in Portchester, if five out of the 30 men get work in a given week, they are lucky.

Even though the National Bureau of Economic Research declared an official end to the recession in September, the day laborers’ predicament is far from over.

“The recession hits day laborers harder than it does people with full-time work,” said Lynn Svensson, director of the Day Laborer Research Institute. Of the estimated 260,000 individuals working as day laborers in the United States, approximately 75 percent are undocumented immigrants, according to “On the Corner,” a study by the University of California at Los Angeles in 2006. The study found that their immigration status and the lack of English skills are the biggest impediments in finding more stable work.

Since the recession began in December 2007, the number of day laborers at this spot has increased, said Bob Ascat, the paint store manager who has seen them for the last decade. Local contractors drive by the corner looking for workers to assist in construction work. For a worker who does not have a business relationship with a contractor, he relies on customers from the paint store who have home projects to complete.

But the work available for them has decreased as more people compete for a shrinking pie. In 2009, the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization, reported that the unemployment rate for foreign-born Hispanics in the fourth quarter of 2008 was 8 percent, a 3-point increase from the same period in 2007.

Although immigration status was not recorded for the report, the center estimates that undocumented immigrants account for about five percent of the U.S. labor force. In certain industries such as construction, which is the primary industry for day laborers, undocumented immigrants account for 12 percent of employment. Most undocumented immigrants are from Latin American countries, with 55 percent coming from Mexico.

“Life is difficult,” said Pareja, who emigrated to the United States from Mexico eight years ago. “There are times when you don’t find work, and even more now that things have gotten harder.”

His family is still suffering from the recession’s consequences. A month ago his wife started selling Mexican tamales by the dozen to acquaintances with the hope of earning the family an additional $150 a week.

When there is no work, Pareja supports his family with savings and relies on his father-in-law, who assists him in some projects, to pick up half of the rent when necessary. Every single workday counts for him because coworkers may learn of his skills and recommend him for contract jobs.

A week after that chilly Monday morning, Pareja found a contract job with the help of a friend he met through work. He would earn $450 a week for six weeks remodeling apartments on 1st Ave near 60th St in Manhattan.

But work comes sporadically for Pareja, who may have a week with only two to three days of work, other weeks nothing. “No one can survive on that,” said Svensson. “ Bosses are paying less now, their wages have actually gone down.”

There are also day laborers in the underground economy who may not get paid for days and even weeks of work when contractors use a person’s immigration status as an excuse to withhold payment.

“They threaten you with sending immigration, and you can’t turn somewhere else for help,” he said.

“Day laborers are often the targets of exploitation,” Svensson added. “They are often paid less than they were promised, or not paid at all for their work, and told by employers that if they call the police that they will be turned in to immigration.”

What makes the situation worse is day laborers often do not know enough about their rights. “They have no sense of empowerment,” said Beth.

Other day laborers in this Bronx intersection have also been cheated out of money by dishonest contractors. According to the UCLA study, 54 percent of day laborers in the Eastern United States have not been paid for their work.

In a more recent study released this past summer, the Seton Hall University School of Law surveyed 26 day laborers (approximately half of the workers) at the corner of Stockton Street and Wilson Avenue in Newark. Ninety-six percent of day laborers at this East Ward intersection, located less than 40 minutes from the Bronx, reported instances of nonpayment or underpayment from contractors.  These regional and local reports exceed the 48 percent reported nationally for day laborers who have lost wages, and in Newark the majority of them have lost $800 or more.

“They have accepted wage theft as a cost of doing business,” said Bryan Lonagan, a Seton Hall law professor who oversaw the Newark study. “There really isn’t an effective avenue for them right now to bring a wage complaint.”

Bronx day laborer Jose Balquiera understands the frustration of losing $800 of wages.  After only a few months in New York City, the 28-year-old lost two weeks and $1,000 when a contractor did not pay him for remodeling an apartment. The person who hired him dismissed any discussion of payment from the beginning, simply saying he would pay him on Saturday, then telling him another day.

“Sometimes they don’t show their face,” Balquiera said, scanning the street for cars pulling up. “They give you their numbers but they don’t answer to not pay you.”

The Toluca, Mexico native has been in the United States for a year, and feels overwhelmed by the language barrier, which often causes day laborers even more fear to enforce their rights. “It feels really bad,” said Balquiera in Spanish of not being able to defend himself when he encounters contractors that do not want to pay. “Imagine, they talk to you in English and you don’t understand.”

Wage theft in New York City amounts to an estimated $1 billion across all low-wage industries, according to the National Employment Law Project. Passed last month in legislature, the New York Wage Theft Prevention Act calls for stricter penalties and the enforcement of laws meant to protect workers.

Although this provides an added resource for workers, the Newark study suggests day laborers are vulnerable to wage theft because they have limited English skills and they fear complaining to the authorities due to their immigration status.

“Most of them expressed fear of the police reporting them to immigration and customs enforcement for possible removal,” Lonagan said of the lack of police involvement.

Lonagan added that if a day laborer submitted a dispute through small claims court, it could take almost a year before the claim was just recognized. The day laborers choose then to seek work to make up the lost money instead of spending days in the process.

Although Bronx day laborers may not seek formal assistance in cases of labor abuse, these workers look out for each other even as they compete for jobs. Demaso Genis said he makes an effort to point out crooked contractors who have stiffed him in the past when they return to the intersection. He wants to make sure others are not exploited and left at construction sites without payment.

“There’s no way to reclaim that money,” he said. “No one is interested in lending us a hand.”

The day laborers support each other in whatever possible small ways. Photo: Yiting Sun

The day laborers support each other in whatever possible ways. Photo: Yiting Sun

Genis said even when contractors actually do pay, every day there is someone different who promises a specific salary only to actually pay less.

The 47-year-old left his wife and two children in Morelos, Mexico more than a decade ago. He said even when the recession might have ended for others, supporting the family is still a struggle for him.

“There are weeks that you can’t even send $50,” he said of this variable work that pays him an average of $80 a day when there’s work.

Remittances to Mexico dropped 20.4 percent from February 2008 to February 2010, according to BBVA Research, a global finance company. After 17 consecutive months of falling remittances, April offered an increase of less then a percentage point. Although remittances continued to increase at a small rate, the improvement slowed in September, and it’s not expected to reach more than two points based on the outlook of the United States economy.

As a result, these day laborers live on as little as possible to send as much money as they can to families in their native countries. Balquiera lives with 11 other men in a four-bedroom apartment, where his portion of the monthly rent is $120.

“When I do find work, I send money; when I don’t…” he stopped and shrugged off the rest of the answer. “It’s difficult here.”

Before the recession hit, day laborers had less competition and more work. With more money to send home, their families invested the money they received in education, businesses and new houses.

After almost 20 years of sending money to his wife and six children in his native Acapulco, Mexico, Cornelio Hernandez, 63, now has his own house in Mexico and is currently putting his youngest daughter through college.

“Everything is done with sacrifice,” he said of not seeing his family for almost two decades. “We come to this country to suffer, to become something.”

Hernandez’s time in New York City has paid off. He is solicited by contractors throughout the city because of the reputation of his work. For the past few summers, a real estate agent has hired Hernandez to work in City Island for the upward sum of $110 a day to remodel apartments. His tired eyes light up and his smile widens when he talks about his children’s professional pursuits.

This winter Hernandez is prepared for more than the harsh winter. According to Svensson, there is less work for day laborers from November to the end of February. Contractors focus mostly on indoor projects such as painting and installing floors.

Pareja said his current contract job is helping him save for those winter months. He still hopes this job could lead to the next so he does not have to spend hours waiting for work in the snow. “We try to do things as best as possible,” he said with his one-year-old daughter on his lap in his home. “If your boss likes your work, he can give you more work.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Money, Southern BronxComments (0)

The Riveras are One in a Million

By Mustafa Mehdi Vural and Jose Leyva

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The Riveras share their 18th floor apartment with three chihuahuas, birds and a small aquarium. Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

The elevators break down at least twice a month in the Murphy Houses, a 20-story, low-income complex at 1805 Crotona Ave. in the Bronx.

Disrupted service is an inconvenience for all its 714 residents. But a broken elevator poses an extra burden for Francisco Rivera, 31, from Puerto Rico, who lives on the 18th floor with his wife and two children.

Francisco Rivera’s right leg was amputated 13 years ago when doctors found a cancerous tumor on his knee in Puerto Rico. At that time, Rivera was an 18-year-old boxer in high school, and also a husband and father of one daughter.

Doctors at Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx found and removed another tumor in his brain last May, bringing his total number of tumors to 18. After numerous operations, he has lost half of his right lung and part of his groin.

“There are no hospitals in Puerto Rico like in the U.S., there is no such technology,” said Rivera’s 29-year-old wife, Elizabeth, in Spanish. She was 13 when she met Francisco and 15 when she first gave birth to their daughter, Franshely.

“Doctors told me that I had a year to live,” said Rivera recounting their ordeal in Puerto Rico. His cane leaned against the couch. And the walls in the living room were covered with the Puerto Rican flag.

The Rivera family immigrated to the United States in 2000 in search of better medical treatment.

Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

"I am a fighter, I have always been fighting for my life and for my family's well being," said Francisco Rivera. Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

“The doctors say I am a miracle,” said Rivera. “I tell my husband you’re a living miracle, because I’ve seen cases like yours and they just don’t make it,” said Elizabeth.

Francisco survived brain surgery in May, but it has left his vision impaired in his left eye, and visible scars in his skull, which was reconstructed with metal implants.

“I have small memory problems. Right now I’m taking pills to prevent epilepsy,” said Rivera.

On a Monday afternoon in late October, the elevator was out of service again in the Murphy Houses. So the Rivera family had to make it down the stairs to go to Old Navy department store in Co-op City, in the Bronx.

They were not going shopping. They were going to collect a $1,000 gift, along with new clothes as part of Old Navy’s nation-wide project called “One in a Million.”

“It is inspiring to know that such a huge fashion store is interested in helping people like us,” said Rivera. “I think they are recognizing my own efforts to overcome the cancer.”

This project is meant for each store manager to invest $1,000 in his or her community. The company reserved $1 million in total for this nationwide project that hopes to reach out to 1,000 families in need.

“Anything that they can get is a help during this tough economy,” said Jenira Lopez, the store manager of Old Navy in Coop City.

Early in October, Lopez reached out to Ivine Galarza, the District Manager of the Community Board 6, to identify a needy family in East Tremont.

She had many residents to choose from.

More than 40,000 people receive public assistance in East Tremont, which comes to over 50 percent of the population. In the Bronx, overall, 41 percent of the population is on welfare, 10 points more than the citywide average, according to 2008 district profile data.

“Anyone of these families would have been candidate for this award that Francisco Rivera got,” said Galarza.

“I immediately thought of him,” said Galarza. “I know of him and of his family and of his conditions for years. The situation that they are going through is terrible.”

Galarza noted that the city does not do enough to take care of the poor in her district.

“This is unrealistic–$4 a day for a person to have lunch,” said Galarza, pointing to the figure in the official city document called “Guide to Cash Assistance Budgeting.” “At least in this holiday season, we are making one family happy out of 175,000 families that live in the confines of the Community Board 6.”

The Rivera family’s yearly income is approximately $20,400 a year, $1,000 below the poverty line for a family of four. The average household income in the Bronx is $34,031 compared to $53,448 citywide.

Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

The Riveras have been married for 16 years and have spent 13 of those in hospitals. Photo By Mustafa Mehdi Vural

Francisco’s wife is the family’s main income provider. She works 30 hours a week as home health care attendant for Gotham Per Diem. “I take care of patients with cancer,” said Elizabeth. She earns $9 per hour, providing 60 percent of the family’s income – almost $1,000 a month. The rest comes from the Supplemental Security Income, a federal welfare program for disabled people.

“I just can’t work. It wasn’t a decision I made,” said Rivera. He spends half of his time at home and the other half in the hospital. “I cook, clean the house and take care of our kids.”

It is not easy for Francisco Rivera to execute his daily routine tasks without taking a morphine derivative to fight pain.

Nor is it easy to make ends meet.

The Riveras pay $510 a month for a two-bedroom apartment, which means that each of the family members live on approximately $10 a day.

Elizabeth and Francisco know how to be economical and can now pay their bills without problem. But they realize their family’s expenses will increase as the kids grow up.

Franshely Rivera, 14, is a 9th grader in Wings Academy in the Bronx. She is also taking ballet classes. Miguel Rivera, 10, is a 5th grader in CS 92 and he plays Little League baseball in “Caribe Little League,” the biggest league for the kids in the Bronx.

But difficulties over the years have not kept the Riveras away from making long-term plans for the future.

“The only thing I want, I dream of, is that my children finish undergraduate school and raise a family if they want,” said Rivera.

College tuition will be difficult to manage. “We are going to save for the kids’ education,” said Rivera about the $1,000 gift from Old Navy.

Miguel, however, would prefer a plasma TV and Nintendo Wii, the latest model video game.

“My children are respectful, obedient and studious,” said Rivera. He loves to spend time with his kids, who takes Miguel to baseball practice and to school. He even taught his son how to ride a bike with his amputated leg.

“In the next three years I would like to take my family to Puerto Rico, I want my children to know their country and to meet our family,” said Rivera.

Though Francisco has spent his entire adult life in hospitals, it is not a cause for disappointment for him. He said he sees hope in operation rooms, consultations, and the pills that he takes.

“I am still alive, thank God. He has given me the strength to go forward and fight for my family which I adore,” said Rivera.

“I haven’t surrendered.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, MoneyComments (1)

1744 Clay Ave.

by Sarah Omar Wali and Mustafa Mehdi Vural

Workmen with blue shirts labeled “JLP Home Imp. Inc” were a welcome sight for the tenants of 1744 Clay Ave. in East Tremont one fall week in October. Their 73-year-old building has been collapsing rapidly into disrepair for the last two years.  For many, the conditions have become unbearable.

The team of repairmen has been hired by JLP Management Inc., which holds a temporary lien on the property.  Five bathrooms have already received new tiles and a paint job. The rest of the repairs for the 42 units are expected to be completed by the end of the month.

Still, tenants in the 38 occupied apartments continue to be overwhelmed by the mold, the collapsing ceilings, and the general decay that accelerated under Ocelot, and later Hunter Property Management LLC.  The tenants have filed 51 complaints with the Department of Housing and Preservation Development (HPD) citing serious problems that include the broken elevator, the unstable structure, and problems with the heat.

According to Carmen Pineiro, president of the tenants association, conditions turned from bad to worse when Hunter took over management of the building in November, 2008. Since then, she said, the tenants lost hot water and heat several times, the elevator went out of service for almost a year, and repairs to holes in the walls and ceilings were neglected.

Niger Harris, who lives in apartment 1C, worries that the derelict conditions will affect the health of her asthmatic 7-year-old daughter, Nyla.  Doctors found that the levels of lead in Nyla’s system have tripled since the two moved into 1744 Clay Ave. along with Harris’s sister.

According to Harris, doctors ordered a Bi-Level Positive Air Pressure (BIPAP) machine the machine when Nyla failed a sleeping test this year. She lost her ability to breathe for five seconds while she was asleep. Doctors warned Harris that her daughter’s health will not improve unless she moves out of the building.

Others stay because they feel a deep connection to the building – even now. For many, 1744 Clay Ave. has been home for over 25 years.  Pineiro said they are connected to the building through memories and experiences and find it hard to imagine living anywhere else.

There is a strong sense of community in the building.   The unlocked security gate doesn’t deter neighbors from keeping their apartment doors open.   While the halls may be stained with dirt by the years of neglect, they are clean enough for children to run and play in while adults stand around the stairs chatting.

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4289,4301,4305 Park Ave.

By Mamta Badkar and Connor Boals

with additional reporting by Donal Griffin

Abandoned Ocelot properties along Park Avenue in Tremont that racked up over 100 violations, stand defaced by graffiti. The buildings are being restored by new owners, Paradise Management.  Photo by Mamta Badkar

Former Ocelot properties along Park Avenue in Tremont stand defaced by graffiti. The buildings which racked up over 100 "immediately hazardous" violations are being restored by new owner Isaac Hershkovitz. Photo by Mamta Badkar

Four buildings once owned by Ocelot loom over a very different Park Avenue in the central Bronx neighborhood of Tremont. The buildings until recently were ghost-like shells, but are now beginning to stir with the sounds of renovation. Their troubled past, however, still follows them.

The buildings are around 100 years old and among the oldest in the Ocelot portfolio. They are four-stories tall and contain between 20 and 24 units each. The façade has been defaced by graffiti, windows have been smashed in, and parts of the building have been stripped bare by the construction workers who point to sections where there are holes in the floor.

The buildings all have a past full of violations with the New York City Department of Buildings that range from structural instability to defective boilers. Under Ocelot’s management, the Park Avenue buildings racked up over 100 “immediately hazardous” violations by the end of 2008.

Many of the complaints were structural. “Caller says every time the Long Island Railroad train passes the building shakes,” read a Feb. 22, 2007, complaint about 4301 Park Ave. to the Department of Buildings. “From the top to the base of the building is cracked on the outside at the top building.”

Others address fire safety with a touch of the bizarre. “Caller notes the boiler is defective and caught fire on June 14, 2007. Boiler emits soot throughout the apartments,” read another complaint about 4289 Park Ave. filed on the same day as the fire. “And please inspectors take caution due to the large amount of pit bull dogs in basement.”

The now vacant lots are subject to routine inspections by the New York City Fire Department. The market value of each building ranges from $381,000 to $504,000 according to City-Data.com. In all, the four buildings are worth over $1.7 million.

“We aren’t stripping the buildings down, just patching them up,” said Joseph Silberman the current contractor. “These aren’t in Manhattan.” Now owned by Brooklyn-based Paradise Management with financing by Doral Bank, two of the properties are expected to be ready by January 1, 2010. “Only when the properties are fully occupied, will the bank go ahead with the others.”

Around the corner at Western Beef, store manager Jim Frisco said his business was hardly affected by the exodus. Neighbors and a member of the New York City Fire Department worried that at least one of the empty buildings were being used for drug activity.

David Arroyo, the manager of Jochi Auto Repair Inc. who has lived on neighboring Webster Avenue for 16 years, said “the riff-raffs” had been moving out over a period of time but the buildings appeared completely vacant two months ago.

“People were afraid to leave their cars because they were scared people would take their stuff,” he said, referring to the former occupants of the Ocelot properties. “Since they left, it’s gotten quiet and we’re doing pretty good.”

But trouble still follows the buildings, which were part of a package of five buildings bought by OCG VI – an Ocelot company – in June of 2007 for $6.2 million. When Ocelot’s backer, Israeli company Eldan Tech, abandoned the portfolio last last year, investors found a buyer for the Park Avenue buildings in Brooklyn property dealer, Issac Hershkovitz. Eldan Tech now alleges in a civil case filed in Manhattan’s State Supreme Court, however, that Ocelot’s president, Rachel Arfa, carved up the deal with Hershkovitz so that Ocelot only received $350,000 instead of $3 million, while she personally pocketed $300,000. Arfa has denied the allegations and counter-sued in the same court. Both cases are pending.

Eldan Tech also alleges that Hershkovitz has failed to pay the $350,000. The property dealer has yet to lodge a defense.

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1804 Weeks Ave.

by Sarah Omar Wali and Mustafa Mehdi Vural

The newly painted pink and blue walls in apartment 52 in the building at 1804 Weeks Ave. give the illusion of a well-cared for living space.  But the bright colors provide only a thin cover for the vermin-infested apartment Fernando Diaz shares with his wife and two young daughters.

Outside, boarded-up windows and broken glass leave the impression that the East Tremont building is abandoned.  Inside, graffiti splashes the hallways, doors are missing, and the shaky staircase is pocked by holes. “Don’t Rent Here,” is scrawled on the doors of empty apartments. More than 20 families, most of them Latino, are attempting to survive in this five-story building,which was bought by an Ocelot entity in August 2007. It has been in foreclosure since April of this year.

Twenty-seven of the 33 apartments are occupied and the rent averages $850 a month.  According to the Department of Housing and Preservation’s (HPD) records, tenants have filed 338 complaints in the past year.

HPD took note of the broken windows, trash strewn floors, lack of security and hot water, and put the building under the Alternative Enforcement Program in early 2008.  The year-old program, was designed to identify and fix dwellings in severe distress.  The law allowed the city to sweep in to make necessary repairs, and then slap the derelict owner with a hefty fine.

Yet this program has had little to no impact on the quality of life inside 1804 Weeks Ave.  According to the program’s report, as of Oct. 2007, the owners owed $19,100 as a tax lien to the city for open violations against the building.  This included a $16,500 fee that was carried over from the previous fiscal year on April 24, 2009.  Under the program’s guidelines, the city charges a fee for violations that remain unresolved. This building currently carries 581 outstanding violations, according to HPD.

Diaz has been living on the fifth floor with his wife, Rosie Benitas, and their two daughters Jacquelin, 7, and Tanya, 4, since February. They used to live in a second-floor apartment, but a fire forced them to move upstairs.

Diaz tried calling the maintenance supervisor in the building, he said. But he was told the super would not do any work in the apartment until he received his paycheck.  Diaz understands the super’s dilemma, but said he is more concerned about the mice and rats that could crawl into his daughters’ beds at night.

Using 311, Diaz has attempted to file formal complaints about rodent problems, lack of hot water and falling ceilings.  However, after months of neglect, he decided to at least try and make the apartment cheery.

Diaz painted the walls in bold hues to cover up the holes around the bathroom knobs.   The girls’ room was given a cool turquoise color to divert them from the windows that don’t open–creating an inferno in the summer.

However, most of the damage cannot be ignored, he said.   His bedroom ceiling leaks when it rains, and the crack is edging closer to the light fixture.  At night he lays in bed, staring at his ceiling, hoping that faulty wires will not cause another fire, and force them out once more.

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1663 Eastburn Ave.

By Alex Abu Ata and Alex Berg

Vivian Blanco chokes back tears when she remembers the last winter she spent at her 1663 Eastburn Avenue apartment in the East Tremont section of the Bronx.

“To sleep we had to wear socks and scarves and coats,” said Blanco, who lives in one of the 43 apartments in the six-story building. None of the apartments had heat last winter. “It was so uncomfortable to sleep with all those clothes and blankets on top of you because it’s heavy, you can’t even move.”

Most of the apartments suffer a variety of damage, including mold, broken window frames, cracked walls and ceilings, and occasional rodent infestations. The tenants say the building’s decay accelerated after OCG IV – a company linked to Ocelot – bought it for $3.175 million in February of 2007. Ocelot abandoned its holdings less than two years later.

From the tenants’ perspective, Ocelot’s disappearance was a relief.

“We didn’t have any service,” said Blanco, a 55-year-old hospital unit assistant whose grandchildren cannot visit her because of her apartment’s condition. “At least now I can call someone and they’ll pick up the phone.” Blanco said she got the contact information for city workers who were fixing the building and hired them to fix her apartment. But problems keep popping up in the old building. In the last 12 months alone, 295 violations were reported.

Tenants have often had to do the repairs themselves, at their own expense. When the management refused to repair the living room ceiling in Blanco’s apartment, she hired workers and purchased the material herself. The total cost amounted to $2,000 and Blanco had to take a week off work to supervise the repairs.

But maintenance isn’t the only problem. Hector Melo Ramos, a third-floor resident, said in Spanish that his apartment was robbed and there are drug dealers in the building.

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Tenants Complain of ‘House of Horrors’

by Sarah Wali

LaDonna Clements the white tile pictured above were a preventive measure against mold on her bathroom ceiling, but realized her mistake when it too was covered.

LaDonna Clements waited impatiently at the foot of the stairs at 689 E. 187th St. in the Bronx one afternoon in October. She and her son, Rondell, were moving some of their belongings to another, safer apartment in Harlem.  A loud crash sent her running.

On the third floor landing she saw her son’s left leg dangling from the landing above her.  He had fallen through, spraining his back and neck, and twisting his ankle.

“We knew eventually the staircase was gonna cave in,” said Clements, a 32-year-old nursing aide.   “We knew, we had a feeling because it would shake.”

Tenants had filed complaints about conditions in this building regularly, according to the New York City Department of Housing and Development. In the past year, it received 31 citations. Although inspectors from the city’s Building Department deemed it safe, the owner, Solieman Rabanipour, was cited for failure to maintain the property.

Rabanipour adamantly denies tenants’ claims of disrepair in the apartment.  He blames Clements and her son for the damage on the landing.

“She’s lying,” said Rabanipour, when asked about Clements’ claims that the stairs were dangerous.  “They were moving furniture, they dropped a piece and the steps broke.”

Rabanipour pointed out that there are no open violations against the building.   He fixed the issues raised in the citations.

However, the dilapidated conditions are hard to miss.

A wooden block replaces the broken landing between the shaky structure’s third and fourth floors.  Out of the six units, five are currently occupied.  Tenants complain of vermin, falling ceilings and lack of hot water.

Yet, Clements, at least at first, felt blessed for the opportunity to move into this real home.  She, like many of her new neighbors, had been living in homeless shelters with her son for months.  She craved stability.  But living without reliable hot water, heat and electricity killed her spirit.

She said her living room windowpane came off shortly after she arrived.  Then mold and mildew piled up until it caked the bathroom ceiling and Rondell ’s bedroom.  If a fuse blew at night, they would have to wait until morning for the restaurant downstairs to open and give them access to the fuse box.

Clements says she tried calling Rabanipour, a Manhattan dentist with a home on Long Island, but got no response.    After over a dozen attempts to file a complaint with the city through 311, an inspector came to check on her apartment in this February.

“They had to close down my living room because they said it was poisonous,” she said.

According to the Department Housing and Development, inspectors found high levels of asbestos and lead poisoning from the paint in the room.    To pass inspection the room had to be gutted and redone.   It was only then, she said, that Rabanipour sent someone to fix the mold problem in the bathroom.

At first she thought the newly installed white plastic on the ceiling was to prevent the problem from occurring once more.   She quickly realized it had only been covered up when it too was spotted with the dark green.

In May, Clements said inspectors advised her to stop paying rent, and to move out of the apartment.  She and Rondell took what they could, and relocated to a housing project in Manhattan.

Rabanipour claims he didn’t know the apartment had been vacant for four months.

“If I knew they had left, why wouldn’t I rent the apartment out to someone else?” he said.

Yessina Rodriguez, 25, who lives in the apartment directly below LaDonna’s, said she has attempted to call the landlord about the damage in her apartment since she moved in a year ago.  The first time she saw anything being fixed was after Rondell fell through the stairs.

“We don’t have a super at all,” she said.  “We have a guy from the restaurant downstairs who comes and cleans once a month, that’s it.”

Rodriquez doesn’t allow her 3 and 8-year-olds to leave the apartment because she feels the hallway is dangerous.  With no buzzer on the door, the narrow dark stairwell is an ideal spot for strangers to loiter.  By morning, she said, the hallway reeks of urine because two of the three windows are jammed shut.

She hasn’t received mail for the year she’s been in her apartment because her mailbox door is broken.  There is no superintendent to fix it, so she’s stuck paying her bills online and finding and trying to keep up with her due dates.  When she tried to call Rabanipour, she couldn’t reach him, and he has yet to return her calls.

Rabanipour claimed Rodriquez  never called him about her complaints.   He blamed the tenants for breaking the buzzer, and not locking the front door.

“I’m there once a week,” he said. “I have a super there.  I don’t understand what they want.  I can’t be there 24-hours a day.”

Rodriquez decided to take things in her own hands when she found mice in her pantry.   The rodents were eating through her food supply, and she could not afford to let food go to waste. No matter how high she put her food, the mice would come to get it.   She bought a small mixed breed puppy to scare them off, even though it’s a pet-free building.

“I don’t care,” she said.  “I’m afraid of putting my hand on the kitchen wall in the dark because I don’t know what will crawl on it.”

According to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development Rodriquez has called 311 more than 50 times to file complaints, since her attempts to contact the landlord were futile.

Now, fresh patches of paint spot the wall.  Tenants say the building is the cleanest it has ever been.   The dirt-stained floor has been swept and the putrid smell is slightly masked by fresh paint.    But they still worry about the shaking staircase.

To Rabanipour, this is just part of owning a building, and there is nothing wrong with 689 E. 187th St.

“It’s in perfectly livable shape,” he said.

Rodriquez may disagree, but without steady work she has no other option.  She will continue to endure its conditions for the next two years, until her lease runs out.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx NeighborhoodsComments (1)

MTA Pulls Ticket Agents from Subway Stations

Bars of steel cover this ticket desk in East Tremont

Bars of steel cover this ticket desk in East Tremont. Photo by Fred Dreier

by Fred Dreier

Inside the cavernous north entrance to the 174-175th Street subway station, an emergency-door alarm blares, a ticket machine is jammed and two men walk in and jump the barriers with ease. The station’s ticket booth, which used to house two station agents, is barred  and empty, blindly facing the turnstiles it once patrolled.

It’s a different scene at the south entrance to the station, which is not connected but serves the same B and D metro lines in the Morris Heights neighborhood. Customers queue up to functioning ticket machines. An MTA station agent, who asked to be identified only as “Joshua,” mans the booth and flips off the alarm when customers open the emergency door.

“If people see you, most of the time they are not going to jump over the barrier,” Joshua said.

The 174-175th Street stop is one of eight in the Bronx to lose its station agent in the latest round of cost cuts done by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. On Sept. 20, the MTA trimmed 99 of the positions — called Station Customer Assistants — from 86 stations spread throughout the city’s five boroughs. It was the first wave of slices in a long-range plan to replace 772 positions with automated ticket selling machines by the middle of 2010.

According to spokesman Charles Seaton, the MTA cut personnel from lesser-used stations. The 174-175th Street station had 1.5 million visits in 2008, making it the 285th busiest out of the city’s 421 stations. In contrast, the city’s busiest station, 42nd Street-Times Square, saw more than 60 million riders year.

“Station Customer Assistant jobs are being cut because they do not sell fares,” Seaton wrote in an email. “The integration into the system of high-entry turnstiles, MetroCard vending machines and express machines has actually increased station access.”

Seaton said the agents themselves would not lose their jobs, but would be reassigned to other MTA jobs. Station agent positions, Seaton said, will gradually be phased out over the coming years.

But replacing human beings with machines isn’t a step in the right direction, says Dave Katzman, a spokesman for the Transportation Worker’s Union Local-100. Katzman added that the plan will actually cost the MTA more money than it saves.

“If the kiosks are dismantled, there will be additional costs,” Katzman said. “Despite the claim to be savings driven, this approach is ideological.”

The MTA cuts come despite a recent subway fare increase and a $2.3 billion emergency bailout from the New York State government in May. But the MTA faces falling revenues and $26.8 billion in debt, and Seaton said the cuts are needed for the agency to simply balance its 2009 budget.

Not all customers are feeling safe with the new changes. Dave Cisneros is a part-time cameraman whose apartment building is 100 yards from the 174-175th Street station. Cisneros said he does not enter the station at night.

“It’s just a big empty corridor down there and you’re a sitting duck,” Cisneros said. “People get robbed around here; it happens. When you see someone inside the subway, you feel safer.”

Delia Madera, 19, said the station agents provide a basic level of support when the ticket machines break down or the turnstiles malfunction.

“I see it as more of an annoyance,” Madera said. “If I’m in a hurry, maybe I won’t take the subway.”

The loss of agents also affects how law enforcement patrols the subway. Sgt. Tim Casey works with the New York Police Department’s transit district, which is located inside the 161st Street-Yankee Stadium subway station. The precinct patrols the subway system in the Bronx with officers in uniform and plain clothes.

Casey called the station agents the “eyes and ears” for the transit cops.

“We have a huge problem of theft in the stations, with people swiping MetroCards,” Casey said. “When station agents are there it is down to a minimum because they shoo the thieves away.”

Casey said his precinct had not drawn up a strategy for operating without the agents at select subway stops, but said that they will be missed.

“The overall picture doesn’t look good, Casey said. “It’s going to rear its ugly little head later on. When you replace people with machines, it doesn’t always work.”

The agents also manage problems with the ticket machines. Joshua said that with the closure of the ticket booth at the north entrance, he now receives constant intercom calls from customers complaining about broken ticket machines or jammed turnstiles. He or a coworker must walk over to the other entrance to fix the problems.

His repair work only lasts for so long. After a few hours of traffic, he said, the south entrance is usually back to its dysfunctional state.

“It does not make sense,” Joshua said. “It is now the customer who is at risk.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, CrimeComments (1)

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