Tag Archive | "Housing"

Open Vacant Buildings to Low-Income Families, Housing Advocates Urge

By ALICE SPERI Within a span of fewer than 10 blocks, three buildings on Courtlandt Avenue tell the South Bronx’s version of New York City’s housing crisis. On the corner with 161st Street, construction workers complete the last floor of a new, nine-story building. Between 152nd and 153rd, a set of elegant, newly built condos lays vacant, but boarded up to avoid squatters. A block away, a crumbling building is covered in notices to vacate due to perilous conditions, but some windows are open and the premises seem occupied nonetheless.
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Eviction notices posted on this vacant Courtlandt Avenue building say the place is perilous. Photo by Alice Speri

Much like other stretches of New York City, this section of Melrose has recently turned into a construction site. Within a few blocks, longtime residents can no longer afford to pay rent, high-rise buildings wait for the cash necessary to complete construction, and brand new condos remain unoccupied, waiting for tenants turned away by the economic downturn. In the South Bronx alone, 93 buildings are empty, according to the group Right to the City, which is slated to release in the spring the full findings from a survey it did of unoccupied and incomplete developments throughout the city. With the housing market nearly frozen by the recession and growing numbers of Bronx residents without a home, some city officials and community organizers are considering converting these empty constructions into affordable housing, that is, if they can agree on what affordable means. The Housing Asset Renewal Program (HARP), a $20 million pilot initiative launched last August by the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development, offers financial support to developers to complete or convert their buildings on the condition that some of the units are put on the market at lower prices. Experts, however, say the incentive to developers may not be enough to generate interest. Community activists, on the other hand, fear the program won’t benefit those most in need. The program calls for rents that are affordable to households with incomes at or below $99,800 for a family of four, or $69,900 for an individual. The average household income in the Bronx is less than $34,000. “HARP won’t benefit folks of low income,” said Nova Strachan, the housing justice director for the Hunts Point-based group Mothers on the Move. The group is one of 15 community organizations that joined Right to the City in conducting its survey of vacant properties. Strachan compared the initiative to the construction of the new Yankee Stadium. “They spent over $300 million to build this stadium, they put a Hard Rock Café right next to a McDonald’s, '' she said. "That’s beautiful, but for the folks that live here and struggle every day, how does that benefit us?” In the six neighborhoods Right to the City surveyed, it found 601 vacant buildings, a stark difference from the approximately 400 the Department of Buildings estimates for the entire city. Right to the City’s member organizations are calling for the conversion of the vacant buildings into housing for families with lower incomes than what the HARP guidelines call for.
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On Courtlandt Avenue, between 152nd and 153rd Streets, new apartments lay vacant and boarded up to discourage squatters. Photo by Alice Speri

In short, the city's definition of what is affordable needs to be rescaled. “It’s outrageous, $20 million directed at the middle class and upper-middle class is not really an ideal use of funds,” said John Tyus, a Bronx native and spokesman for the group Families United for Racial and Economic Equality. Tyus added that the money appears to be a bailout of irresponsible developers. To be eligible for financing through the Housing Asset Renewal Program, a project must be a completed or partly constructed, unoccupied, residential building where the owner is unable to either complete construction or sell or rent a sufficient number of units. The money available is intended to convert market-rate units to affordable units and enable the owner to complete construction. A minimum of 50 percent of the dwelling units must be put on the market at affordable rates for at least 30 years. “This program holds out the promise of addressing the unintended blight caused by vacant sites, while transforming what would have been market-rate buildings into affordable housing for working class New Yorkers,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said when he launched the program. As many as 400 units could be converted as part of the pilot program, Department of Housing representatives said. Preference will be given to projects in neighborhoods that have been hit particularly hard by the downturn in the housing market and projects that need less subsidy to be completed. Though the initial deadline for applications was set for the end of December, no contracts have been announced yet, and the deadline was extended to April 1, leaving many in the community believing that the program was unsuccessful. In Riverdale, a Bronx neighborhood where vacant luxury condos are a common sight, not one developer had signed up for the program, Bronx Borough Director Mike Lugo said at a Community Board 8 meeting last November. Several people at the meeting said they had never heard of the program. Instead, faced with a stall in sales, the developers of the Solaria luxury high-rise in Riverdale opted to auction off the 54 condos in the complex, for prices as low as 56 percent of the original listings. Many think the city’ s program does not offer enough of a financial draw for developers, who have made huge investments into these properties. “Many of the bigger developers are financially stable and can warehouse their properties until things get better,” said Tyus, of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality. But Tyus added this was an opportunity policy makers should take advantage of. “The city is in an excellent position to negotiate with the developers and the banks,” said Tyus. “To have them all take a little bit less and provide a great deal more.”

Posted in Housing, Money, Southern BronxComments (3)

The Soundview Tenants Who Fell Through the Cracks

by Donal Griffin and Matthew Huisman with audio slideshow by Carmen Williams

Martha Castro cannot remember how many mousetraps and glueboards she has scattered around her two-bedroom apartment on East 172nd Street in the Soundview neighborhood of the Bronx. All she knows for sure is that four are in the bedroom where her granddaughter sleeps. "We're not really getting heat," Castro said. "There's something wrong with the pipeline so we don't get no heat. The only place that gets warm in this apartment is the kitchen and the living-room." Her son wants her to move to Florida, away from the cold weather and her home of 21 years. But that would take Castro away from her case in Bronx Housing Court against Hunter Property Management, the company responsible for managing her building and five others throughout the borough.
Residents living in Hunter-owned buildings have problems like rat, roach and mice infestation. Photo by Connor Boals

Rat holes in an apartment in 1585 East 172nd Street. Residents accuse their landlord of not making repairs. Photo by Connor Boals

On Hunter’s watch, the buildings have racked up thousands of housing violations. Residents have accused the company of not being able to afford the repairs. “I might just say ‘to hell with it’ and leave,” said Castro, who is 65. “But I hate to have started something and leave it half undone.” Castro’s is the latest chapter of an all-too familiar story in the Bronx after the real estate crash in 2008, one that pits low-income tenants against their debt-laden landlords struggling with bank repayments. On the side of the residents is an aggressive non-profit, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), which has helped Castro and other residents organize against Hunter. Based on Wall Street and led by a spiky activist named Dina Levy, UHAB began its campaign in September of this year with flyers accusing Hunter – which is associated with the buildings’ owners, BXP 1 LLC – of not having the funds to repair or even maintain the buildings.
A UHAB flyer organizing a tenants' protest meeting.

A UHAB flyer organizing a tenants' protest.

The tenants and UHAB then held a protest meeting in the lobby of Martha Castro’s building in October, but a Hunter security official called the police, further antagonizing both sides. Hunter’s general counsel, Alice Belmonte, said that the tenants had every right to hold the meeting, but any UHAB activist would be considered a trespasser. “UHAB had already trespassed in the building,” Belmonte said, “by littering it with flyers.” Conditions in the buildings continued to worsen in November as city housing inspectors noted that the property manager had failed to make even basic repairs to broken smoke detectors and bathroom faucets. UHAB and the residents then decided to march into the Bruckner Boulevard branch of the Dime Bank and Savings, the bank that has backed two sales of the buildings in less than three years. Security officers escorted the protesters off the premises and they then picketed outside, attracting some unwanted publicity for Dime. The tenants had contacted bank officials before about the buildings' worsening conditions, but got little in response, according to the advocacy group. "The message at the time was that it's not our problem,” said Dina Levy. "We got a bullshit letter back (and) this blow-off phone call." Indeed, the Dime’s chief lending officer, Dan Harris, had previously stated to Bronxink.org that the bank could do little to help the situation as it was “just the lender.” Andreas Rios, a 13-year resident at 1585 East 172nd Street, said he wrote to Dime Bank personally when his request for repairs to his apartment went unheeded by the building's super. "They explained that if that's the situation, 'We can't get involved,'" Rios said. "That's your problem." But three days after the protest, on Nov. 23, Harris met with the residents and the non-profit. “I think we got their attention,” said Rios. Getting the bank to the table was crucial to putting pressure on Hunter, according to UHAB, and the militant strategy appears to have worked. “We are optimistic that tenant representatives, the owners, UHAB and the bank will have a follow up meeting soon,” said Harris, “where we can air all the issues and find practical solutions which benefit all parties.”
Sam Suzuki, the property developer behind Hunter Property Management LLC.

Sam Suzuki, the property developer behind Hunter Property Management LLC.

But Harris has more to worry about than just negative publicity. Dime Bank had backed the $13.2 million purchase of the six buildings in May 2009 to a company called BXP 1 LLC. This is managed by the same property developer who owns Hunter: Sam Suzuki. This “over-leveraged” position is now a critical problem, according to Levy, while residents like Castro have also stopped paying rent in protest, further weakening the buildings’ financial position. "But (even) if everybody were paying their rent,” Levy said, “the buildings would still have negative cash flow." Dime Savings Bank backed the original $16.6 million sale of the six buildings to the Ocelot group in July 2007. Ocelot had built up a portfolio of almost 30 buildings in Bronx, all of which were backed by Fannie Mae – with the exception of the six Dime-backed buildings. Ocelot’s principals then pulled their investment in late 2008 and sought to sell the entire portfolio to Sam Suzuki. But that deal collapsed earlier this year and Fannie Mae was forced to put its buildings into foreclosure.
A portable heater in one of the Hunter buildings is a necessity. Many of the building have infrequent heat. Photo by Matthew Huisman

A portable heater in a Hunter-managed apartment. Many of the buildings often go with out heat. Photo by Matthew Huisman

While the clamor surrounding the condition of the Ocelot buildings grew in the Bronx over the summer--even attracting the attention of U.S. Senator, Charles Schumer--Suzuki bought six of the buildings in May. The debt on the other Ocelot buildings has since been sold to another developer in a deal praised by UHAB and the city. But Suzuki’s buildings remain out of the spotlight, despite their decrepit state. The six buildings have 2,519 open violations with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development as of Dec. 6. The worst conditions are in Castro’s building on East 172nd Street, which has 528 violations. Two of the Highbridge buildings are now listed amongst the 200 most distressed buildings in the city. The violations include everything from the infestation of rats, roaches and mice to lead-based paint peeling from the walls. "The supers used to paint before and they don't even do that now," Rios said. "There's graffiti all over the place. You can even see the lead from the paint chipping out." The buildings have the potential for even more violations, but many go unreported. A lot of the residents receive a rent subsidy from the city, said Emmanuel Attram, a Ghanaian resident of another Hunter-managed property on nearby 1268 Stratford Avenue, and don’t protest their conditions for fear of losing it. This isn't the only reason. “There are a lot of illegal immigrants in this building,” said Walter H. Clark, another Stratford Avenue resident. “A lot of them won’t complain.” Castro’s court complaint against Hunter has already resulted in a court order from the Bronx Housing Court requiring Hunter to make various repairs to her building. “Some repairs have been made and some have not,” said Steven Di Cesare, Castro’s lawyer. “We can talk to the landlord more or go back to the courts – they’re the options.” Hunter's Alice Belmonte did not respond to questions from Bronxink.org about the company, the court case or about Sam Suzuki, as she said the company had an exclusive deal in place with another media outlet, which she would not name.
Conditions have deteriorated since Ocelot sold these buildings in May 2009. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Conditions have deteriorated since Ocelot sold these buildings in May 2009. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Suzuki's profile on Linkedin.com describes him as the principal in Hunter, which was registered with New York State's Division of Corporations in November 2008. The profile also states that he was a principal until last year in another company called Vintage Group LLC, which was "responsible for the acquisition and development of over $500 million in real estate developments." In 2008, Hudson Valley Bank foreclosed on one of his properties in Sands Point, Long Island, NY, in order to secure a $2.7 million debt. ChinaTrust Bank recently secured a $3.3 million judgment against the same property. “The Daily News” reported last month that yet another entity linked to Suzuki called Venator Capital LLC had purchased the RKO Keith’s Theater in Flushing, Queens, for $20 million. Suzuki more recently told "The New York Times" that he has yet to close the deal. The New York City property registry does not list any purchases by Venator Capital, however, while the Division of Corporations has no record of the company. According to Suzuki's profile, Venator Capital invests in distressed properties and its expertise is "the acquisition of troubled assets." Martha Castro said she cannot afford to make the repairs to her apartment on her own. Parts of the linoleum floor in her kitchen and bathroom caved in after a fire seven years ago damaged the structural integrity of the building. Earlier this month, Castro paid for a handyman to plaster the walls and paint, yet cracks and discoloration caused by leaky pipes still persist. “The things that have improved here,” Castro said, “they’ve come out of my pocket.” But having invested money and time in her home, she is hesitant to change. “You get settled in a place and you don’t want to move.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, HousingComments (1)

A Squatter’s Paradise?

By Fred Dreier

When Janet found the vacant apartment this past summer, it was a mess. He's since cleaned it up and now lives rent free. Photo by Fred Dreier

When Janet found the vacant apartment this past summer, it was a mess. He's since cleaned it up and now lives rent free. Photo by Fred Dreier

Geovanni Janet remembers the first time he pushed open the door to Apartment 4A and peered inside. A tangle of broken furniture lay twisted on the living room floor and old bits of garbage littered the two bedrooms. Someone had ripped the kitchen sink from its fixture; its location was unknown. A moldy aroma wafted through the hallway. Janet was homeless at the time and says he saw potential in the mess. He stepped across the threshold into his new home and into his new life as a squatter. “I didn’t have no bed so I slept on the floor in my clothes,” Janet said. “I didn’t even have a pillow. I just used my shirt to keep the light out. I did that for two months. It was rough, man.” That was back in May. In six months, the 35-year-old Janet transformed the Bronx flat into his home. It’s hardly luxury housing: large holes fill the ceiling, two windows are missing and Janet pours his drinking water from the bathtub faucet. But gone are the days of sleeping on the floor. Janet has furnished his bedroom with a queen-sized bed and a wooden chest of drawers he plucked from a dumpster. He even has a Playstation 2 on loan from a friend. “It’s comfortable,” Janet said. “Nobody has ever told me to get out.” The ease with which Janet has lived rent-free in Apartment 4A says a lot about the current housing crisis facing the Bronx. Hundreds of neglected apartment buildings dot the borough because their owners went bust in the sub-prime market crash in 2008. With no cash for upkeep, many of these structures have gone for a year or more without services and supervision. A recent survey by the United Housing Assistance Board (UHAB) estimates that at least 70,000 individual apartments, both inhabited and vacant, sit in various states of decay. “If a window breaks and you don’t fix it, you are sending a message to the community that nobody is taking care of things,” said Dina Levy, associate director of the UHAB. “Buildings that were in decent condition are now in decline. Some activities that used to be not tolerated in these buildings are now going on.” Janet’s building, for example, currently sits in an ownership purgatory. Its old owner, Ocelot Capital Group, is a Manhattan-based real estate investment firm that gobbled up nearly 30 Bronx buildings at the height of the housing bubble, and borrowed big sums to pay for the purchases. After Ocelot defaulted in fall of 2008, Fannie Mae entered foreclosure proceedings on the company’s properties this spring. In early December 2009, the group Omni New York LLC purchased the building. Fore more than one year, the building went without basic services or supervision. Like Ocelot, other real estate firms borrowed, bought high and went bust. The companies have left a trail of decaying structures, and an open doors for squatters. “There was no lock on the door, so I just came in," said Janet, who was living in a homeless shelter at the time. "It was as easy as that. A man doesn’t want to live in a shelter. He wants a home.” Not all squatters are looking for a home; many come and go, leaving destruction in their wake. Squatters nearly overran the Ocelot property at 621 Manida St. in the Hunts Point neighborhood after vandals broke the locks off of doors. Unwanted entrants dug into the walls to steep metal pipes to sell for scrap. Others used vacant apartments to run drug and prostitution rings. Tenants there called local police, who now regularly drive by the buildings for signs of unwanted guests. “It’s a problem you have to stop early," said Det. Art Warrick of the 42nd Precinct, "because the more people start moving in it becomes a coop for new squatters. They let other people know a building is open. It can become a haven for drugs or crime. We try to get to it before things get out of hand.” Tenants faced a similar situation across the Bronx at 1744 Clay Ave., another building owned by Ocelot. When management stopped coming to the building in January 2009, repairs and care stopped. After a month, tenants noticed undesirables from the neighborhood loitering in the building’s lobby and on the roof. According to resident Carmen Piniero, it wasn’t long until squatters broke into the building’s four vacant apartments.
Manhattan real estate firms such as Ocelot Capital Group invested heavily in Bronx real estate in 2007. Two years later, many of the properties are in varying states of decay.  Photo by Fred Dreier

Manhattan real estate firms such as Ocelot Capital Group invested heavily in Bronx real estate in 2007. Two years later, many of the properties are in varying states of decay. Photo by Fred Dreier

“A neighbor came to me and said he heard people inside, doing drugs and having sex,” Piniero said. “We went into the apartment and found condoms. People had been doing drugs.” Piniero said she and her neighbors collectively agreed to call the police on the squatter’s nest. Cops showed up and chased the newcomers off. “Now we keep our eyes and ears open on the vacant apartments,” Piniero said. “We don’t want people coming into our homes who don’t live here.” Janet said he isn’t worried that someone in his building might call the police or the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and have him thrown out. A quick poll of Janet’s neighbors showed that many realize he is indeed living in the apartment without paying rent. But not one neighbor said they felt compelled to call the police on Janet. The building’s superintendent, Victor Garcia, even exchanges heat and electricity with Janet for work around the building. Janet helps take out the garbage and helped Garcia clean two vacant apartments on the fourth floor. “Geo – he’s ok. He usually just stays up in his apartment,” Garcia said. “He comes around asking if I have any jobs for him, and if I do, I put in to work.” Janet said he rarely interacts with anyone other than the super. He passes his days working in the building, spending time with his 16-year-old daughter who lives in the neighborhood or watching borrowed DVDs on his Playstation.
Should the buildings in question be open to squatters, or be offered to groups of concerned tenants? Levy believes most will eventually be once again sold to speculators and for-profit companies. Photo by Fred Dreier

Should the buildings in question be open to squatters, or be offered to groups of concerned tenants? Levy believes most will eventually be once again sold to speculators and for-profit companies. Photo by Fred Dreier

“I feel like I gotta help,” said Janet. “I’m not working, so if neighbors need help it’s something to keep my mind focused.” The housing crisis in the Bronx is reminiscent of the late 1980s and early 90s, when a boom in vacancies and abandoned buildings matched a similar increase in joblessness and homelessness. That period was the pinnacle of New York City’s squatter movement and squatters took up residence in all five boroughs. Squatter communities, which often included artists and actors, made headlines in Manhattan’s Lower East Side for their militant stand against HPD. Writer Robert Neuwirth, whose book "Shadow Cities" chronicles squatting across the globe, followed the clashes between squatters and police. “People were pretty savvy about picking which buildings to squat in,” Neuwirth said. “You had to find a building that was worth less than the taxes owed on it.” Neuwirth said the squatter communities he followed renovated the abandoned and dilapidated buildings they inhabited. The Rev. Frank Morales is a Bronx priest and homeless advocate who helped establish squats in the 1970s and 80s. Morales now operates the Bronx-based non-profit Picture the Homeless, which advocates for low-cost housing for homeless people. Morales is quick to point out the difference between harmful squatting — the kind involving drugs and prostitution — and what his group promotes. Morales defines his form of squatting as “urban homesteading. “We are not like flies on a piece of food," he said. "The squatting we’re talking about involves occupation and renovation. The notion is to develop housing based on ideological concerns for the community, not based on the conventional profit model.” Morales believes the key to addressing the housing crisis is to allow groups like his to organize homesteading camps, and then move them into vacant buildings to work on renovations and live. In 2002, the City of New York turned over 11 city-owned buildings in the Lower East Side for legal squatting in a series of housing cooperatives. Homesteaders had established legal squats in the buildings and worked for years on renovations. Morales said it was a step toward a broader acceptance of homesteading in New York City. “People have become separated from the naked greed that pumped up the housing bubble and ruined our communities,” Morales said. “There’s the notion that these buildings are there. There are vacancies in them. And there are people living on the street. Why not let someone live in there?” Others believe the tenants rights groups, not squatters, should be the ones to benefit from the current housing crisis. Levy called the housing dilemma an “opportunity” for established renters to take control of their own buildings.
The building Janet lives in has struggled with ownership woes for more than a year. Janet said he had little trouble establishing his squat on the fourth floor. Photo by Fred Dreier

The building Janet lives in has struggled with ownership woes for more than a year. Janet said he had little trouble establishing his squat on the fourth floor. Photo by Fred Dreier

“It would take a combination of government subsidy, tenant advocacy and some agreements from the banks,” Levy said. “If tenants can find capital sources, I think they have an opportunity to take back a lot of housing in the Bronx from speculators.” But legal homesteading or tenant ownership in the Bronx would require radical actions by the banks that currently hold the debt on each property. And Levy said neither outcome is likely to happen, unless the city steps in and buys the properties. “The banks are holding out and looking for more speculators,” she said. “The banks are still looking to get the highest possible value for these stupid loans and there are people out there who are willing to buy.” Janet said does not think of himself as an activist or a homesteader, just a man who wanted a roof over his head. He said he does not panhandle, but instead finds money doing favors and odd jobs around the neighborhood. He also receives cash from his 16-year-old daughter who lives around the corner. “It’s depressing," Janet said. "I know it. It’s not easy for a person to change, but I’ve changed,. All I’m asking for is a job. I don’t want your money. I want to earn your money.” Janet said that in a perfect world, he’d be able to land a job and begin working toward a new future. IHe would earn enough to buy a van, and then take a job delivering newspapers. He would save enough cash to buy gifts for his daughter and to buy groceries at the Fine Fare grocery store down the street. He said he’d also earn enough cash to pay the rent.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, HousingComments (2)

Bronx Residents Protest Poor Living Conditions

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, HousingComments (0)

1585-1589 E. 172nd St.

By Matthew Huisman

Martha Castro remembers when she moved into 1585 E. 172nd St. in  the Soundview section of the Bronx. "It was a very beautiful building,"  Castro said. "I've been here 22 years and this is the worst." Between 2006 and 2007, Ocelot bought 1585 and a neighboring building, 1589. After Ocelot ran out of money and abandoned the buildings, conditions deteriorated at a rapid rate. Tenants continued to pay rent, even as they lived with holes in the walls, rat infestations and sparse heat. “All we want is to get our service done and live decently,” said Castro, 65. “It´s a struggle because you want to live comfortable and not having to worry about, `Are we gonna have hot water?´” A company connected to Hunter Property Management purchased the two buildings, along with four other Ocelot properties, in May 2009. Since then, residents have been rebelling against their new landlords.
Residents of 1585 E. 172nd Street are organizing against their poor living conditions. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Police were called when residents at 1585 E. 172nd Street organized a protest in the lobby. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Residents’ anger at the decrepit living conditions bubbled over during a tenants’ meeting on Oct. 14. Castro, president of the tenants association, invited the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, a non-profit organization that helps low-income residents collectively own and govern their buildings, to talk to residents about ways to improve their quality of life. “Management apparently called the police and said there was some disturbance at their building,” said Dan DeSloover of Urban Homesteading.  “We told police the tenants are holding a meeting and they invited us to come. Then they left.” A lawyer for Sam Suzuki, the principal manager of Hunter Management, said her client had no problem with tenants organizing, but the police were called because the UHAB members at the meeting were trespassing. “The buildings have over 3,000 code violations total,” said DeSloover of the six Hunter-owned buildings. “These buildings were under Ocelot before  Hunter and so the people here have had bad, bad conditions for years.” DeSloover and his colleagues from Urban Homesteading are chronicling the conditions that continue to exist in the five-story apartment buildings that butt up against one another. DeSloover said he plans to present this evidence to Dime Savings Bank of Williamsburg, the bank that issued the mortgages initially for Ocelot, then for Hunter in May 2009.  ”It will help make our case if we do get a meeting with the bank,” said DeSloover. “Maybe we can work with them to change ownership and better conditions.” mlh2171@columbia.edu

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, HousingComments (2)

1528 Bryant Ave.

by Alec Johnson and Amanda Staab

From the outside, 1528 Bryant Ave. looks like a decent building. But once inside, it´s clear that years of neglect have taken a toll. Poor wiring, faulty plumbing,crumbling walls and filth caused by both old age and neglect plague the structure. Residents say that their five-story, 21-unit apartment building has not been regularly maintained for years. The city´s housing department has on file 483 open violations against 1528 Bryant Ave., 162 of them registered since October 13, 2008. The most common complaint was the lack of utilities. The building´s rapid decline can be traced from July, 2007, when it was purchased by OCG VII, an Ocelot entity, with Fannie Mae financing. Ocelot imploded in late 2008, however, and Fannie Mae foreclosed on the loan earlier this year. The City has now placed the building in its new Alternative Enforcement Program, under the supervision of Marc Landis, the court-appointed receiver. Irma Aponte and her husband, Eddie, moved into the building 43 years ago and have seen it literally fall apart before their eyes over the past four decades. "It was beautiful when we moved in," said Irma Aponte who said the last few owners have walked away from the building after using it to make a little cash. "As soon as they got a few dollars in their pocket they left," she said. Aponte pointed to a leaky drainpipe in her apartment, which her husband patched up with a soda can and duct tape over one year ago. She said the electricity shorts out constantly, because of poor wiring all over the building. "I can´t have air conditioning," said Aponte who buys whole boxes of fuses when she sees them in stores because they are tough to get. On Aug. 25, the city took over the building after foreclosing on Ocelot. The city´s Department of Preservation and Development then came in to make emergency repairs. Since Fannie Mae foreclosed earlier this year, the city´s Department of Housing Preservation and Development has come in to make emergency repairs. A new roof and front door have been installed, securing the building from drug addicts, who Aponte claimed were wandering into the building to smoke crack in the stairwells. Ramos said the fuse boxes and wiring are scheduled to be replaced soon. One abandoned apartment on the fourth floor has been turned into a pigeon coop, residents say, by someone who lives within the building.  Twenty pigeons roost on a baby crib. Bags of corn lay nearby in a red plastic container. The birds and bird food attract vermin and roaches into the already decrepit building, Aponte said. "I would like to know what they´re going to do with the building," she said, "because we have no landlord."

Posted in HousingComments (1)

When The Bubble Burst

How a New York real estate deal went bad, causing a housing crisis for hundreds of low-income families


View Ocelot in a larger map A map of all foreclosed and bankrupt Bronx properties mentioned in the story. Click on a location to read an in-depth story and watch an audio slideshow for each individual property. If you encounter problems viewing the map, click on the links below to view the slideshows and stories. red= Ocelot buildings currently in foreclosure. On Dec. 1, 2009, Fannie Mae sold the debt to Omni New York LLC. red806 E. 175th St. red1528 Bryant Ave. red1744 Clay Ave. red2254 Crotona Ave. red1663 Eastburn Ave. red1512-1524 Leland Ave. red621-627 Manida St. red1269-1271 Morris Ave. red1804 Weeks Avenue yellow= Ocelot buildings sold to BXP 1LLC on May 13, 2009. The buildings are managed by Hunter Property Management LLC. yellow1585-1589 E. 172nd St. yellow1350 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd yellow1636-1640 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd yellow1268 Stratford Avenue blue= Ocelot buildings sold to Bronx Apartments LLC on Aug. 26, 2009. blue422 East 178th St. blue4289,4301,4305 Park Ave.

By Donal Griffin

Additional reporting by Matthew Huisman, Wanda Hellmund, Sarah Wali, Connor Boals and Yoav Sivan LOUISE ALVAREZ cannot remember who used to live in the abandoned apartment in the building next to hers on Manida Street in Hunts Point. The mother of four pushed open its unlocked door one morning in October to find cooking pots caked with old food strewn among sneakers, used hoodies and open bags of trash. The stench of stale urine wafted out into the hallway. Nearly half of the apartments in the four decrepit buildings at 621-627 Manida St in the Bronx are empty. Like Alvarez, the remaining residents live with dangerous mold, vermin and only occasional heat in apartments that suffer from varying stages of decay. Most said their apartments began crumbling around them soon after the last owner vanished nearly one year ago. Many like Alvarez cannot afford to leave.  She is asthmatic, and has arthritis in parts of her hands and hips. “I ain’t moving,” she said, “let me tell you.”
Nearly half the apartments are empty in the Manida Street buildings. <br> <br>Photo by Wanda Hellmund

In less than two years, Ocelot had bought up nearly 800 apartments in the Bronx, including buildings on Manida Street which many of its low-income tenants refer to as the

A similar tale can be told by the tenants in 24 other buildings throughout the Bronx.  The aging apartment blocks have become known as “the Ocelot buildings,” named after the defunct real estate investment company that bought them between 2006 and 2007 at the peak of the housing bubble, only to abandon them in late 2008, as the market collapsed. Some news outlets have called Ocelot a “phantom” and, indeed, the company’s president could not be contacted for this article. But the consequences of a bitter row between Ocelot’s principals are very real for hundreds of families across the Bronx. Spending Spree VETERAN real estate dealer Michael Edery was part of a group in early 2005 that bought 1744 Clay Avenue and 1633 Eastburn Avenue, two low-income buildings in East Tremont. His group paid five times the rent roll for the pair of buildings, and sold them nearly two years later for $6 million, seven and a half times what the rents would yield. “The market was insane,” said Edery. “If it would have been marketed properly at the height of the market, we would have gotten eight times, eight and a half." Various entities surrounded the purchase, but Edery knew the buyer simply as Ocelot Capital Group. Ocelot appeared to have endless capital, and an endless appetite for apartment buildings in the Bronx.  Backed by a $29 million loan from Deutsche Bank (a debt it later sold to Fannie Mae), the company bought the Manida Street buildings for $7.2 million, Edery’s two buildings for $6 million and 15 more low-income properties in Morrisania, Pelham Parkway and Crotona for nearly $23 million. The Dime Savings Bank of Brooklyn then financed six more buildings in Highbridge and Soundview for $16.6 million.  In less than two years, Ocelot had bought up nearly 800 apartments all over the Bronx. Inside Ocelot OCELOT’S president was a respected New York attorney named Rachel Arfa, a graduate of Brooklyn Law School and a member of the New York State Bar since 1979. Arfa is a former partner of an international law firm called Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson and a businesswoman whose strength is her legal expertise. Arfa’s father was a Hebrew scholar called Milton Arfa, who lectured in Yeshiva University and established the Israel Matz Fund to distribute grants to indigent Hebrew authors. Rachel Arfa, who lived on Riverside Boulevard in lower Manhattan during the Ocelot episode, is now a trustee of the charity along with Shlomo Sharan, an Israeli academic based in Tel Aviv. While Arfa managed the buildings in the Bronx, the cash for this costly venture came almost entirely from an obscure Israeli company called Eldan Tech.  According to its annual report, this Tel Aviv-based investment group controlled 80 percent of Ocelot.
Residents of 1585 E. 172nd Street are organizing against their poor living conditions. Photo by Matthew Huisman

The police were recently called on the residents of 1585 E. 172nd Street when they attempted to organize against their poor living conditions. Photo by Matthew Huisman

From Tel Aviv to The Bronx Arfa had close links to the Tel Aviv business world through her husband, Alex Shpigel. In 2002, the couple had raised $40 million from a group of Israeli investors for a major purchase in Harlem and the Bronx. Shpigel provided the financial fulcrum for the deal with his network of family and personal relationships in Israel, while Arfa used her legal know-how to set up its complex structure of real estate entities. But in 2007, some of the Israeli investors filed a civil suit in Manhattan’s State Supreme Court alleging that the couple covertly siphoned off $5 million in “secret commissions” from the sellers of the properties. These commissions were then loaded onto the purchase price. According to the same court filing, Shpigel threatened to kill an associate who found out. Arfa and Shpigel have denied all the allegations, and no criminal charges have been filed against either of them. The couple filed a counter suit in the same court against a former associate, whom they blame for the much of the mess. These tangled cases provide an unfortunate warning for disasters to come. The Fall BACK in the Bronx, the trouble began almost as soon as the couple sealed the deal on the Ocelot buildings. Many of their new tenants qualified for city and federal rent subsidies. This meant rent revenue alone would be too meagre to support the maintenance needs in these aging buildings. Money would have to come from elsewhere. According to the Department of Housing and Development, it never did.  Basic repairs – the responsibility of Arfa and Shpigel – ceased to take place. Thousands of official complaints flooded the city’s housing files listing everything from rat infestations to collapsing ceilings. Residents who had options began to abandon their apartments. Those who did not, endured a year and more of living in degrading conditions. The buildings racked up “immediately hazardous” violations. Six Ocelot buildings in particular ended the year on the city’s list of “most distressed.” By the end of 2008, nearly every one of the Ocelot buildings was in a state of serious decay. In response, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) took Ocelot to Bronx Housing Court in June 2008. It secured consent orders compelling the company to repair nearly 3,000 violations in six buildings and pay approximately $60,000 in fines. HPD officials claim that Ocelot never addressed the violations—the kind of negligence that could result in a contempt of court ruling, i.e. jail time.
A clogged bathtub in an apartment at 1640 Martin Luther King Boulevard. The tenants of this building have filed 297 complaints with the housing department since November 2008. Photo by Matthew Huisman

A clogged bathtub in an apartment at 1640 Martin Luther King Boulevard. The tenants of this building have filed 297 complaints with the housing department since November 2008. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Meanwhile, in October of 2008, Eldan Tech directors decided enough was enough. They voted to bail out. By then, the property market was collapsing on a global scale. The Ocelot costs had stung the company’s bottom line. In 2008, Eldan Tech reported “heavy losses of about 53 million shekels ($14.4 million) due to its real estate activities in the Bronx.” The cost for the Ocelot residents, however, was of a different nature. Broken front doors meant drug addicts could freely roam the halls. In one building, pigeons took up residence on an abandoned baby’s crib. Louise Alvarez and her children – and many Ocelot tenants all over the Bronx – lost their heat and hot water for the winter of 2008. Who’s to Blame? Arfa and Shpigel and their Israeli business partners are now locked in a vicious legal dispute to determine who is more culpable for this human and financial catastrophe. The Tel Aviv investors claim in their civil suit that Arfa lied about the buildings’ physical condition and financial performance and “incessantly demanded” more cash. Arfa’s lawyer, David Katz, countered that Eldan Tech failed to supply her with “millions of dollars” of needed maintenance money.   Katz also charged the Israeli company with bribing a senior Ocelot employee for confidential information about Arfa’s and Shpigel’s businesses elsewhere. The couple is now suing that ex-employee for $1 million in New York State Supreme Court.  The employee has denied the charges. “They're vindictive,” said Katz of Schlam, Stone & Dolan, referring to Eldan Tech principals. “They’re trying to avoid their responsibilities.” Enter Sam Suzuki While the legal squabble continued, Arfa began looking for a way out. Sam Suzuki, a long time property dealer based in the wealthy town of Port Washington, Long Island, emerged as a potential buyer. His company signed a no-cash deal in November 2008 and took on Ocelot’s debt with Fannie Mae. But Suzuki’s company never made any bank repayments and a lawyer for Suzuki would not explain why. This caused the deal to collapse in early 2009 and Fannie Mae foreclosed on the loans. Court-appointed receivers took over, putting most of the buildings – and their tenants – into a legal no-man’s land, where they remain today. A Fannie Mae spokesperson, Jon Searles, said that the bank is now “joining the receivers on inspections of the properties and funding much-needed safety repairs.” Such promises don’t wash with the tiny maintenance budgets that the receivers are currently struggling with. One receiver recently sought a court order to secure more cash from the bank for repairs. Searles also said that Fannie Mae is looking to sell the loan notes on the buildings to “responsible new ownership.” Who that “responsible” new owner might be, remains to be seen. Katz said that Arfa now wants the buildings sold to a non-profit, because the only parties hanging on for a for-profit deal are Eldan Tech and Fannie Mae. One of the interested parties, as it turns out, is Sam Suzuki.
Residents of 1585-1589 E. 172nd Street gather in protest against poor living conditions. Photo by Connor Boals

While Fannie Mae is looking for

Financial History In 1998, a legal firm tried to force Suzuki to declare Chapter 7 bankruptcy over a disputed $77,000 debt, a debt that was settled in 2001. Other trade creditors have also been forced to take Suzuki to court to get paid and one creditor even secured a judgment against him for over $2 million in the New York City Supreme Court in 2004. Suzuki paid the judgment off two years later. Suzuki has still managed to find the cash to donate thousands of dollars to Democratic politicians around New York over the last eight years, including $6,200 to former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, $7,450 to U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman and $9,000 to U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer. And despite the earlier deal collapsing, a company linked to Suzuki did manage to buy six of the Ocelot buildings in May of this year, including three in Soundview that were not part of the Fannie Mae foreclosure buildings. Conditions in many of them remain appalling. Residents recently gathered in the lobby of 1585 E. 172nd St, to protest its dilapidated conditions but their meeting was interrupted by police, who were called by an employee of Suzuki's. A lawyer for Suzuki said that her client had no problem with the tenants organizing but that the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board members at the meeting were not invited and thus trespassing.
A resident of 1268 Stratford Avenue displays a live mouse caught on a glue trap. Photo by Connor Boals

A resident of 1268 Stratford Avenue displays a live mouse caught on a glue trap. Many of the low-income residents have dealt with rats, leaky ceilings and faulty wiring. Photo by Connor Boals

In another Suzuki-owned apartment building on Stratford Avenue, a family of 10 lived without heat for a year before it was only recently restored.  The superintendent at 1636 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. has filed 20 complaints since September of this year, spotlighting everything from water leaks and holes in the ceiling to faulty electrical wiring. One mother in an Ocelot building at 1585 E.172 St. has to keep her infant son out of her kitchen because of rodents. "No puedo vivir con las ratas," said Ana Almonte. “I can’t live with the rats.” The Wait On Manida Street, Louise Alvarez stays put, waiting for a new landlord and hoping the nightmare may soon be over. She sleeps in her living room so her children can share the bedrooms. “We’re here struggling,” she said. “I guess I’m going to be struggling until God answers my prayers.” dbg2114@columbia.edu

How a New York real estate deal went bad causing a housing crisis for hundreds of low-income families

By Donal Griffin

Additional reporting by Matthew Huisman, Wanda Hellmund, Sarah Wali, Connor Boals and Yoav Sivan

LOUISE ALVAREZ cannot remember who used to live in the abandoned apartment in the building next to hers on Manida Street in Hunts Point. The mother of four pushed open its unlocked door one morning in October to find cooking pots caked with old food strewn among sneakers, used hoodies and open bags of trash. The stench of stale urine wafted out into the hallway.
The entrance to Manida Street buildings. Photo by Wanda Hellmund

The entrance to Manida Street buildings. Photo by Wanda Hellmund

Nearly half of the apartments in the four decrepit buildings at 621-627 Manida St in the Bronx are empty. Like Alvarez, the remaining residents live with dangerous mold, vermin and only occasional heat in apartments that suffer from varying stages of decay. Most said their apartments began crumbling around them soon after the last owner vanished nearly one year ago. Many like Alvarez cannot afford to leave.  She is asthmatic, and has arthritis in parts of her hands and hips. “I ain’t moving,” she said, “let me tell you.” A similar tale can be told by the tenants in 24 other buildings throughout the Bronx.  The aging apartment blocks have become known as “the Ocelot buildings,” named after the defunct real estate investment company that bought them between 2006 and 2007 at the peak of the housing bubble, only to abandon them in late 2008, as the market collapsed. Some news outlets have called Ocelot a “phantom” and, indeed, the company’s president could not be contacted for this article. But the consequences of a bitter row between Ocelot’s principals are very real for hundreds of families across the Bronx. Spending Spree VETERAN real estate dealer Michael Edery was part of a group in early 2005 that bought 1744 Clay Avenue and 1633 Eastburn Avenue, two low-income buildings in East Tremont. His group paid five times the rent roll for the pair of buildings, and sold them nearly two years later for $6 million, seven and a half times what the rents would yield. “The market was insane,” said Edery. “If it would have been marketed properly at the height of the market, we would have gotten eight times, eight and a half." Various entities surrounded the purchase, but Edery knew the buyer simply as Ocelot Capital Group. Ocelot appeared to have endless capital, and an endless appetite for apartment buildings in the Bronx.  Backed by a $29 million loan from Deutsche Bank (a debt it later sold to Fannie Mae), the company bought the Manida Street buildings for $7.2 million, Edery’s two buildings for $6 million and 15 more low-income properties in Morrisania, Pelham Parkway and Crotona for nearly $23 million. The Dime Savings Bank of Brooklyn then financed six more buildings in Highbridge and Soundview for $16.6 million.  In less than two years, Ocelot had bought up nearly 800 apartments all over the Bronx.
Residents of 1585 E. 172nd Street are organizing against their poor living conditions. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Residents of 1585 E. 172nd Street are organizing against their poor living conditions. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Inside Ocelot OCELOT’S president was a respected New York attorney named Rachel Arfa, a graduate of Brooklyn Law School and a member of the New York State Bar since 1979. Arfa is a former partner of an international law firm called Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson and a businesswoman whose strength is her legal expertise. Arfa’s father was a Hebrew scholar called Milton Arfa, who lectured in Yeshiva University and established the Israel Matz Fund to distribute grants to indigent Hebrew authors. Rachel Arfa, who lived on Riverside Boulevard in lower Manhattan during the Ocelot episode, is now a trustee of the charity along with Shlomo Sharan, an Israeli academic based in Tel Aviv. While Arfa managed the buildings in the Bronx, the cash for this costly venture came almost entirely from an obscure Israeli company called Eldan Tech.  According to its annual report, this Tel Aviv-based investment group controlled 80 percent of Ocelot. From Tel Aviv to The Bronx Arfa had close links to the Tel Aviv business world through her husband, Alex Shpigel. In 2002, the couple had raised $40 million from a group of Israeli investors for a major purchase in Harlem and the Bronx. Shpigel provided the financial fulcrum for the deal with his network of family and personal relationships in Israel, while Arfa used her legal know-how to set up its complex structure of real estate entities. But in 2007, some of the Israeli investors filed a civil suit in Manhattan’s State Supreme Court alleging that the couple covertly siphoned off $5 million in “secret commissions” from the sellers of the properties. These commissions were then loaded onto the purchase price. According to the same court filing, Shpigel threatened to kill an associate who found out. Arfa and Shpigel have denied all the allegations, and no criminal charges have been filed against either of them. The couple filed a counter suit in the same court against a former associate, whom they blame for the much of the mess. These tangled cases provide an unfortunate warning for disasters to come.
A resident of 1268 Stratford Avenue displays a live mouse caught on a glue trap. Photo by Connor Boals

A resident of 1268 Stratford Avenue displays a live mouse caught on a glue trap. Photo by Connor Boals

The Fall BACK in the Bronx, the trouble began almost as soon as the couple sealed the deal on the Ocelot buildings. Many of their new tenants qualified for city and federal rent subsidies. This meant rent revenue alone would be too meagre to support the maintenance needs in these aging buildings. Money would have to come from elsewhere. According to the Department of Housing and Development, it never did.  Basic repairs – the responsibility of Arfa and Shpigel – ceased to take place. Thousands of official complaints flooded the city’s housing files listing everything from rat infestations to collapsing ceilings. Residents who had options began to abandon their apartments. Those who did not, endured a year and more of living in degrading conditions. The buildings racked up “immediately hazardous” violations. Six Ocelot buildings in particular ended the year on the city’s list of “most distressed.” By the end of 2008, nearly every one of the Ocelot buildings was in a state of serious decay. In response, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) took Ocelot to Bronx Housing Court in June 2008. It secured consent orders compelling the company to repair nearly 3,000 violations in six buildings and pay approximately $60,000 in fines. HPD officials claim that Ocelot never addressed the violations—the kind of negligence that could result in criminal charges. Meanwhile, in October of 2008, Eldan Tech directors decided enough was enough. They voted to bail out. By then, the property market was collapsing on a global scale. The Ocelot costs had stung the company’s bottom line. In 2008, Eldan Tech reported “heavy losses of about 53 million shekels ($14.4 million) due to its real estate activities in the Bronx.” The cost for the Ocelot residents, however, was of a different nature. Broken front doors meant drug addicts could freely roam the halls. In one building, pigeons took up residence on an abandoned baby’s crib. Louise Alvarez and her children – and many Ocelot tenants all over the Bronx – lost their heat and hot water for the winter of 2008.
A clogged bathtub in an apartment at 1640 Martin Luther King Boulevard. Photo by Matthew Huisman

A clogged bathtub in an apartment at 1640 Martin Luther King Boulevard. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Who’s to Blame? Arfa and Shpigel and their Israeli business partners are now locked in a vicious legal dispute to determine who is more culpable for this human and financial catastrophe. The Tel Aviv investors claim in their civil suit that Arfa lied about the buildings’ physical condition and financial performance and “incessantly demanded” more cash. Arfa’s lawyer, David Katz, countered that Eldan Tech failed to supply her with “millions of dollars” of needed maintenance money.   Katz also charged the Israeli company with bribing a senior Ocelot employee for confidential information about Arfa’s and Shpigel’s businesses elsewhere. The couple is now suing that ex-employee for $1 million in New York State Supreme Court.  The employee has denied the charges. “They're vindictive,” said Katz of Schlam, Stone & Dolan, referring to Eldan Tech principals. “They’re trying to avoid their responsibilities.” Enter Sam Suzuki While the legal squabble continued, Arfa began looking for a way out. Sam Suzuki, a long time property dealer based in the wealthy town of Port Washington, Long Island, emerged as a potential buyer. His company signed a no-cash deal in November 2008 and took on Ocelot’s debt with Fannie Mae. But Suzuki’s company never made any bank repayments and a lawyer for Suzuki would not explain why. This caused the deal to collapse in early 2009 and Fannie Mae foreclosed on the loans. Court-appointed receivers took over, putting most of the buildings – and their tenants – into a legal no-man’s land, where they remain today. A Fannie Mae spokesperson, Jon Searles, said that the bank is now “joining the receivers on inspections of the properties and funding much-needed safety repairs.” Such promises don’t wash with the tiny maintenance budgets that the receivers are currently struggling with. One receiver recently sought a court order to secure more cash from the bank for repairs. Searles also said that Fannie Mae is looking to sell the loan notes on the buildings to “responsible new ownership.” Who that “responsible” new owner might be, remains to be seen. Katz said that Arfa now wants the buildings sold to a non-profit, because the only parties hanging on for a for-profit deal are Eldan Tech and Fannie Mae. One of the interested parties, as it turns out, is Sam Suzuki. Financial History In 1998, a legal firm tried to force Suzuki to declare Chapter 7 bankruptcy over a disputed $77,000 debt, a debt that was settled in 2001. Other trade creditors have also been forced to take Suzuki to court to get paid and one creditor even secured a judgment against him for over $2 million in the New York City Supreme Court in 2004. Suzuki paid the judgment off two years later. Suzuki has still managed to find the cash to donate thousands of dollars to Democratic politicians around New York over the last eight years, including $6,200 to former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, $7,450 to U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman and $9,000 to U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer. And despite the earlier deal collapsing, a company linked to Suzuki did manage to buy six of the Ocelot buildings in May of this year, including three in Soundview that were not part of the Fannie Mae foreclosure buildings. Conditions in many of them remain appalling.
Residents of 1585-1589 E. 172nd Street gather in protest against poor living conditions. Photo by Connor Boals

Residents of 1585-1589 E. 172nd Street gather in protest against poor living conditions. Photo by Connor Boals

Residents recently gathered in the lobby of 1585 E. 172nd St, to protest its dilapidated conditions but their meeting was interrupted by police, who were called by an employee of Suzuki's. A lawyer for Suzuki said that her client had no problem with the tenants organizing but that the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board members at the meeting were not invited and thus trespassing. In another Suzuki-owned apartment building on Stratford Avenue, a family of 10 lived without heat for a year before it was only recently restored.  The superintendent at 1636 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. has filed 20 complaints since September of this year, spotlighting everything from water leaks and holes in the ceiling to faulty electrical wiring. One mother in an Ocelot building at 1585 E.172 St. has to keep her infant son out of her kitchen because of rodents. "No puedo vivir con las ratas," said Ana Almonte. “I can’t live with the rats.” The Wait On Manida Street, Louise Alvarez stays put, waiting for a new landlord and hoping the nightmare may soon be over. She sleeps in her living room so her children can share the bedrooms. “We’re here struggling,” she said. “I guess I’m going to be struggling until God answers my prayers.” dbg2114@columbia.edu

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