Tag Archive | "housing"

Leveling the Legal Playing Field: Tenants Fight for Homes with the Help of Right to Counsel

Elizabeth Thompson, 72, has been in and out of court for around 31 years. She finally got an exemption for a lawyer after Right to Counsel.
Zachary Cassel, The Bronx Ink

Elizabeth Thompson, a 72-year-old retired health care clerk, had been in and out of housing court since 1988. Usually, it was because her landlord claimed she was behind in the rent. 

It was a battle that Thompson largely fought on her own. Until recently.

This past March, Thompson’s landlord took her to court again because she owed $817 in rent, according to court documents. Thompson is on a fixed income from social security and it doesn’t always arrive at the same time, she said. At first, she represented herself.

But she faced little success in court and decided she needed a lawyer.

“They say I’m not qualified for a lawyer,” she said.

Thompson received too much money in retirement from social security to qualify for a free lawyer in housing court, but she couldn’t afford one on her own.

New York City passed its historic Universal Access to Legal Representation law, also known as Right to Counsel, in 2017. It ensures free legal services to low-income Bronx tenants living in four ZIP codes, 10457, 10462, 10467 and 10468. In just two years, evictions in the Bronx decreased by 23%, according to the New York City Office of Civil Justice Annual Report. In a city where two-thirds of residents rent, the Bronx claimed the highest decrease in evictions since Right to Counsel was implemented.

Currently, Right to Counsel is effective in these areas of the Bronx.
Hibah Ansari, The Bronx Ink

The Right to Counsel NYC Coalition advocated for the law. They’re now campaigning to expand it so that more tenants, like Thompson, can be eligible. They partner with other organizations like Legal Services NYC.

Right to Counsel gives power back to tenants, especially as they face landlords represented by powerful law firms, according to Heejung Kook, the housing unit deputy director for Legal Services NYC.

“No one really gives advice to the tenants,” Kook said. “Once the attorney gets involved through the tenant’s side, the tenant knows what their defenses are. So we can try to negotiate for better terms, or often just to fight hard to keep their apartment.”

Thompson asked the Northwest Bronx Community Clergy Association for help, and they directed her to the Legal Aid Society. Although she didn’t qualify because her income was too high, she spoke with a supervisor and was approved anyway.

Everything changed after she found representation, Thompson said.

“The court lawyer went against our landlord’s lawyer and let him know that he had to do,” she said.

Nadia Hasan, the supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society NYC, took up her case.

“A lot of it has to do with just having someone on your side, someone listening and explaining things to you,” Hasan said about Right to Counsel. She added that tenants also get better terms with an attorney present.

Both parties have to comply with the agreement Hasan fought for — Thompson will follow a payment plan while the landlord addresses the repairs.

Brian Stark, a lawyer for her landlord, according to court documents, could not be reached for comment.

The Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition is a grassroots social justice organization. Part of their mission is to advocate for tenants’ rights in the Bronx.

The Bronx has had the most evictions out of any borough for the last six years, according to the Office of Civil Justice report. Before the law was passed, city marshals carried out 7,438 evictions in the Bronx, compared to 5,984 eviction in Brooklyn and 2,843 in Manhattan.

To qualify for free legal services, a family of two would have to make an income of less than $32,480, according to the New York City Housing Court. Thompson earns about $40,000 per a year.

The Right to Counsel NYC Coalition wants to increase the income eligibility so more tenants like Thompson can be covered. For a family of two, the income limit would be $67,640.

Thompson’s building is owned by Claflin Apartments LLC, which is registered to Moshe Piller, according to state business records. 

The Bronx Ink previously reported on the conditions of Piller’s buildings in Brooklyn and the Bronx in 2010. At the time, tenants complained of faulty wiring, a collapsed ceiling and clogged plumbing.

Thompson, who’s lived in the same Fordham apartment for 35 years, had similar complaints about her apartment.

Some days, the boiler in the building worked. Other days it didn’t. The electricity would occasionally go out — one time for eleven hours. Mice came through a hole under her kitchen sink. 

Zachary Cassel, The Bronx Ink

Inell Tolliver, 57, also lives in Thompson’s building. Tolliver said that the other tenants wouldn’t know how their landlord was responding to violations without Thompson, who tried to set up a meeting with building management.

There have been 286 complaints registered against Thompson’s building since 1991, according to the Department of Buildings. There have been nine since January. The most frequent complaint is that the elevator stops working. The building has six floors.

The superintendent could not be reached for comment.

Tolliver cited mold, scraped floors and a locked laundry room in the basement. She also said that the hot water doesn’t always work and it’s been a recurring issue.

When the Bronx Ink tested Thompson’s sink, the water became warm but would not get hot.

Neither Piller or a representative from M. P. Management could be reached for comment.

By 2022, all tenants who are income-eligible in New York City should have access to free legal representation, according to the New York City Housing Court. But even now, as evictions are decreasing, more than half of the tenants at the Bronx Housing Court did not know about their eligibility for a free lawyer before arriving to court, according to a survey conducted by the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition.

For the first time, funding for expansion of legal services for low-income New York City tenants exceeded $100 million in 2018. The city expects to increase funding until all low-income tenants are covered in 2022, according to the Office of Civil Justice. Legal Services NYC also receives funding from the federal and state government as well as charity organizations.

Kook has some doubts about Right to Counsel’s ability to expand to all ZIP codes by 2022. But she added that if the city continues to fund and support Right to Counsel providers in the long term, they can effectively expand their services and decrease evictions across the city.

“Anyone can change the law,” Kook said. “We’re really hoping that the city will continue doing this kind of work.”

Thompson has not been to court since July. Her attorney helped her reach an agreement that will keep her out if she keeps up with rent.

Posted in Housing Injustice Right to Counsel, Special ReportsComments (0)

Finding a Place in New York with a Rental Voucher

When Francheska Lappost, a 24-year-old mother of two, moved from a homeless shelter to her first apartment in Williamsbridge five months ago, it wasn’t an upgrade. There were cockroaches, the stove wouldn’t turn on, the bathroom fan was broken and the sink was clogged, Lappost said.

“It was better living in the shelter than where I live right now,” she said.

Lappost is looking for a new apartment, but finding a place in her price range has proved to be an onerous task.

Lappost receives a monthly rental voucher from the Family Homelesness and Eviction Prevention Supplement (FHEPS), a program run by the New York City’s Human Resources Administration. The agency adjusts the amount of the vouchers according to household sizes. Under this program, Lappost is set to receive $1,557 a month, the maximum for a family of three.

Lappost qualified for the housing voucher because after migrating from the Dominican Republic, she and her family spent 10 months in a homeless shelter in Van Nest, on the east side of the Bronx. That arrangement was provided by PATH, the agency that manages the municipal shelter system.

Lappost is five months pregnant and is now looking for a place to live with her 4-year-old and 7-year-old children. The only option in the FHEPS price range is another one bedroom apartment.

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, a New York-based advocacy group, there are not enough apartments to cover the affordable housing demand. Only 2% of studios and 3% of three-bedroom apartments are in the price range established by CityFHEPS, according to a 2019 report released by the non-profit. In New York City, there are 16,480 vacant studio apartments in the vouchers price range, while there are 17,887 single adults living in the shelter system.  

“We need to be both giving people vouchers to help close the gap between income and rent and we also need to be actually extending the supply of truly affordable apartments if we want to fight homelessness,” said Jacquelyn Simone, a policy analyst for Coalition for the Homeless. 

Coalition for the Homeless wants the city to build 24,000 new units and to preserve the affordability of 6,000 more by subsidizing existing units. Additionally, there is a proposal by District 33 Councilman Stephen Levin that would raise the city voucher price levels to fair market rents and which would widen the supply of apartments for voucher holders, Simone said.   

Even if CityFHEPS beneficiaries find apartments in their price range, that doesn’t guarantee their application will be approved, said Craig Waletzko, community engagement coordinator of the nonprofit Fair Housing Justice Center. Landlords are often upfront about rejecting applications from renters who use vouchers, Waletzko said, despite a state law that prohibits this type of housing discrimination. 

“They’re just so many providers that are convinced that they don’t need to accept renters or people seeking homes using subsidies to pay their rent.” 

Fair Housing Justice Center receives complaints and conducts approximately 100  investigations a year to determine whether landlords discriminate against voucher holders. 

Representatives of the non-profit go undercover, looking for apartments, trying to isolate the factor that would trigger an application denial. They send two separate testers with similar incomes, jobs and credit scores. The only difference between them is the voucher.

Landlords and brokers often fail the test, Waletzko said, treating those with vouchers differently than applicants not enrolled in rental assistance programs. 

Lappost encountered a similar bias on her first apartment hunt. “It took me three months to find my apartment. Not everyone takes programs,” she said.

The tight housing market in New York City means that rents tend to be high, which limit the options available for CityFHEPS voucher holders.

“The quality of housing that is available to folks when they are using the programs is just terrible,” said Waletzko. 

Lappost’s search for an apartment is especially urgent this time around. Her landlord is suing her for not paying rent. She’s not sure why the rent hasn’t been paid; she thought her FHEPS voucher meant it would be paid automatically. Lappost is convinced that her landlord doesn’t have the grounds to evict her. 

Robert Farina, the lawyer who represents Lappost’s landlord, said that although she gets a benefit from the Department of Social Services, she is still responsible for paying her rent. The only exception to this rule is Section 8, a different program in which the city pays part of the rent directly. Lappost’s rent was not paid in full for the months from May to October, Farina said. 

Lappost got another citation to appear in court Oct. 31. She has to show proof of all of the FHEPS invoices . Lappost said she had them – she carried them in her purse the last time she was in court. 

Lappost is running out of options, she had to quit her babysitting job because of her pregnancy. And she’s concerned about the additional bills from housing court. “He also wants me to pay $1000 for his lawyer,” she said.

Posted in - Housing Court Project Policy, Bronx Neighborhoods, Special ReportsComments (0)

At Bronx town hall, concerns about criminal justice, housing

Bronx state senators address their constituents on Thursday, Sep. 12.

THE BRONX, New York—Vivian Young has lived in the Bronx her entire life, but now, at 65, she’s worried about what it would take to remain living there.

“I love it here,” Young said at a town hall at Monroe College in University Heights last Thursday night.

She said affordable housing for seniors is getting harder to come by.

Over 40 borough residents attended the town hall hosted by Bronx state senators. They expressed concern over health, housing and criminal justice.

Young is also concerned about public health, noting that the Bronx has high diabetes rates.

In the borough, 16% of adults have diabetes, according to New York City Health Department data. Only 11% of adults in the city as a whole have the disease. The department notes that around 164,000 adults have not been diagnosed.

Steven Pacheco, 29, a student at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, wanted to hear about how lawmakers were prepared to handle marijuana convictions, rehabilitation into society, and market access, concerns rooted in racial inequality.

“The culture is rich, the people are beautiful,” Mr. Pacheco said of the Bronx. “[But] it’s the last borough in everything.”

Over forty residents appeared to express their concerns.

Sen. Luis Sepúlveda spoke on the legal system and its treatment of people of color. As the chair of the Crime and Corrections Committee, he said he had visited 13 facilities, which had conditions he described as “an abomination.”

Five state senators from the Bronx listened to residents’ concerns, but they also publicized their own accomplishments during the recent legislative session.

Sen. Gustavo Rivera said he was proud of legislation that “codified the ACA in law.”

As lawmakers touted accomplishments throughout their speeches, attendees applauded.

To get something done in the legislature, said Sen. Jamaal Bailey, “you have to go through the Bronx.” He is the Chairman of the Codes Committee. Each of the legislators at the town hall  chair a committee.

In the 2018 Midterm elections, Democrats picked up eight seats in the New York Senate, gaining control of both branches of the legislature and ending the divided government. This allowed them to pass 248 laws, according to official counts.

While just over 40 people showed up, in addition, one in five were staffers for legislators or Monroe College. The moderator opened the panel over a half hour late.

Freshman Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, occasionally sipping from a jar of kombucha, explained how she reestablished the Ethics Committee after years of hiatus. She also held sexual assault hearings.

After the event, Ms. Young expressed disappointment that Sen. Serrano was late due to parent conferences at school. 

“I think he could have just stayed home,” she said.

However, she was encouraged that by Sen. Rivera’s efforts at health care legislation.

According to Sen. Rivera, there’s more to do. “[We’re] just getting the training wheels off.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, PoliticsComments (0)

Majora Carter warns of ‘brain drain’ while community members fear displacement

At Majora Carter’s Boogie Down Grind Cafe in Hunts Point, customers can order coffee with oat milk, and drink it by a window bordered by music-themed wallpaper and newsprint, all while listening to the ‘00s R&B they grew up on. There are books and magazines for free on a shelf next to a mess of posters on the wall advertising dating apps and homeowner help. 

Carter may have created a space at her coffee shop for people to work, connect and learn, but the nonprofit advocate-turned-developer from Hunts Point wants other Bronx natives to stay and invest in their community too. 

For Carter, young people don’t see themselves as having any opportunities in the Bronx. Instead, they measure their success by how far away they get away from their neighborhoods, she said.

“That is really sad, that folks just don’t see themselves investing — not just financially but emotionally — in their own neighborhood. And that brings the brain drain,” Carter said.

A mural created by art organization Groundswell NYC, in collaboration with the Majora Carter Group, students from Hyde Leadership Charter School and the New York City Department of Transportation, in Hunts Point. The mural says “You don’t have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one.”

Carter is a real estate developer and consultant who works to create opportunities in development that retain talent. Her coffee shop, for example, offers “the type of experience we used to have to leave the Bronx to experience,” according to the cafe’s website

Boogie Down Grind Cafe is Carter’s most illustrative example of her work to combat the brain drain — she said she took every single dollar after tax from her consulting work and brought it back to invest in her community. But Carter also said creating the Hunts Point Riverside Park and advocating for environmental justice as the executive director for Sustainable South Bronx had made Hunts Point a place worth staying.

“I believe in the promise of America, that everyone has a right to prosperity and happiness for him or herself,” Carter said. “The way that low-status communities are set up —  it absolutely deprives them of their right to do that.”

Carter doesn’t have the data to support her claim that people are leaving the Bronx — that’s according to her husband James Chase who is also vice president of marketing of the Majora Carter Group LLC.

“When Majora speaks at area high schools (as well as similar communities around America) and asks student groups “who intends to go to college?” nearly every hand goes up,” Chase said in an email. “Her standard follow up is, “If, after college, you’re recruited for a high paying job, will you return here?” and every time, almost zero hands go up.”

Carter said her theory of a brain drain comes from what she’s noticed, anecdotally.

“I’ve been all over this country and even in Europe and found people from the Bronx who left,” Carter said.

Carter wants young people in the Bronx to reinvest in their communities and make their homes a place worth staying. Her group is looking into investment strategies that have been proven to create more opportunity. But after all, she said this is still a capitalist country, so young people are going to need to have some money to do so.

But some Bronx residents just don’t have the capability to invest. 

The Bronx population is growing steadily at 26% since 1980 — faster than the citywide growth rate of 22%, according to a report from the New York Comptroller’s Office. Most of that growth has come from people making less than $50,000, according to a report from the Regional Plan Association. 

What’s more, 29% of residents earn salaries below the NYCgov Poverty Measure of $33,562,  according to the Bronx Community District 2 profile. That measure, compared to the official U.S. poverty measure, accounts for the higher cost of housing in New York City, according to the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity website.

Bronx residents are at the highest risk of housing displacement in New York City, according to the Regional Plan Association. The report said 71% of census areas in the Bronx are in danger of being displaced.

All of this adds up to a different picture  — not one of brain drain — but of displacement, said  Maria Torres, president and chief operating officer of The Point Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit dedicated to youth development and economic revitalization. 

Young people aren’t leaving the Bronx because they’re “too good to be here,” but because they just can’t afford to live in some parts of the Bronx anymore, Torres said.

“This shouldn’t just be a place you just want to run away from,” Torres said. “If we’ve done our jobs right, the kids have an affinity for where they live — they have a pride in this area.”

The Bronx is no different than any area that is struggling with school systems, unemployment and student debt, Torres said. But this doesn’t lead young people to leave — it keeps them close to a home that is far more affordable than any other part of the city.

Development may excite people who have lived through the worst of times in the Bronx, but Torres also said development speculation from outside investors will be the driving force behind people’s departures since affordability in the community will decrease. Strengthening the industry in Hunts Point to make sure people are getting quality jobs and keeping housing affordable keeps displacement at bay, she said.

Carter also said predatory speculators profit by pushing poor people out, but she still feels strongly that combatting the brain drain can create a stable, income-diverse community.

In terms of economic growth, Hunts Point saw 23% of private-sector job increases in the borough and had the most businesses of any neighborhood in the Bronx. Significant job increases were reported in wholesale and retail, trade, social assistance, business services and transportation, according to the Comptroller’s report.

The Point collaborates with community groups, young people and the city to determine what the community actually needs to not only retain talent — but avoid displacement and economic hardship.

“They’re just misguided,” Torres said about people labeling the issue a brain drain. “I hope it [development] plays out in such a way that the people don’t get hurt, the community doesn’t get hurt and lose really good people and things like that because of economics.”

Carter advocates for community ownership too, but she said strictly advocating for affordable housing is not going to cut it. She said academia, media, the government and philanthropy dictate one way to “be noble,” and that if you don’t adhere to their strategy you’re deemed inauthentic.

“We can all be right,” Carter said. “I’m not saying they’re wrong. And I think that lots of folks can try a lot of different strategies — this is the one that we’ve chosen.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Featured, Front Page, south bronx, Southern BronxComments (3)

Jerome Draft Publication Brings Affordable Housing Battle to Bronx

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s battle to build affordable housing in New York will echo under the girders of the Jerome Avenue railroad in the Bronx in the months to come, as residents raise concerns about rent rates and tenant displacement.

City Hall published plans in late August for a massive rezoning of the strip, which it claims will add 3000 affordable housing units spanning 73 blocks from 165th Street to 184th Street.

But the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision, an alliance of local organizations, says that 78 percent of residents will not be eligible to apply for affordable housing under existing income thresholds.

The tenant advocates are campaigning for housing allocations to be calculated according to local, rather than citywide, wage averages.

The de Blasio administration made affordable housing provision and maintenance a top priority when it took office in 2014, promising hundreds of thousands of additional units over ten years.

The City says that the Jerome rezoning was one of the first to be planned under this touchstone initiative, prompted by repeated requests from local community board members and politicians. These local officials, however, stress that any new housing must be genuinely low cost.

“This side of the Bronx has an opportunity,” said Angel Caballero, vice-chair of Community Board 5 and Executive Director of the Davidson Community Center. “We need affordable housing for everyone, but the City has to spell out what it means by ‘affordable housing.’”

Source: New York Department of City Planning, 2016

Source: New York Department of City Planning, 2016

Another key point of contention as the plans go out for public consultation is whether existing tenants will be displaced

The City says the rezoning is expected to displace fewer than 500 residents, so it will not conduct a detailed analysis of changes to the area’s socioeconomic make-up.

“How can they say that? The City doesn’t live here. They don’t know what they’re talking about,” said Caballero.

“500 residents isn’t just a number, those are real people getting pushed out,” said Clara Cruz, an activist with the People Power Movement, a community organizing group.

A spokesperson for the New York Department of City Planning said it anticipates that significantly fewer than 500 people will be displaced, but that it remains committed to working with all those in the community likely to be affected by the rezoning.

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The draft plans for Jerome Avenue were released just two weeks after the City Council rejected a much smaller rezoning project in Inwood, Manhattan.

This ‘no’ vote was seen as a major defeat for a signature de Blasio policy, which would allow developers to skirt regulations if they commit to keeping a percentage of new homes affordable for lower income tenants.

In a context of rapidly rising rents, few locally dispute the idea that the West Bronx urgently requires more housing stock for low earners.

“We need it. Affordable housing, that is, not just housing,” said Wayne Logan, an entertainment manager. “I’m looking for a place.”

Many residents, however, didn’t seem to know that the rezoning was happening.

“99 percent of people don’t know about Jerome,” said Abdul Ali, whose family owns businesses on Burnside Avenue, which is slated to become a commercial corridor under the plans. “The City can do whatever it wants because people don’t know what’s going on.”

A public hearing with City officials is scheduled for September 29th at Bronx Community College. Local residents can submit written comments on the plans until 5pm on October 10th.

 

Posted in Bronx Beats, Featured, Front Page, Northwest Bronx, Politics, Southern Bronx, VideoComments (0)

Local garden reignites long-lost community spirit

A child draws on the pavement with colored chalk outside Block 921. SAHELI ROY CHOUDHURY / The Bronx Ink

A child draws on the pavement with colored chalk outside Block 924. SAHELI ROY CHOUDHURY / The Bronx Ink

On Saturday morning in Hunts Point, children on Kelly Street had free rein of the pavement, which some of them brightened with colored chalk. Some kids played catch while others were engrossed in arts and crafts. With the help of adult volunteers, children cut out bananas from cardboard and painted them, some coloring them yellow, others maroon and sky blue. Residents from neighboring blocks looked on. They had gathered at the newly renovated Kelly Street Garden at block 924 of the famously banana-shaped street to celebrate the second annual Field Day organized by the non-profit outfit, The Laundromat Project.

The star of the event was the Kelly Street Garden, which has become a symbol of revival to a community that had lost its vibrancy through time and neglect. It was unveiled in the first week of June this year. On Saturday, the garden opened its gates to residents in neighboring buildings, some of whom help to tend its 1,541 square feet of harvest area that grows cucumbers, tomatoes, salad greens, kale, and eggplant, among other produce that helps sustain the community.

Field Day at Hunts Point aimed to encourage community involvement through art and yoga workshops, cooking demonstrations, a photo exhibition, storytelling sessions, a barbecue, and walking tours led by local artists Misra Walker and Joseph “Donjai” Gilmore. Walker and Gilmore’s walking tours explored the rich cultural history of the neighborhood by focusing on creative practices of local artists throughout the community.

This arts-led initiative took place concurrently in three neighborhoods — Hunts Point, Harlem, and Bedford-Stuyvesant on September 20 and 21. “We wanted to highlight  the assets that are already in these neighborhoods, and to amplify them as much as possible,” said Kemi Ilesanmi, the executive director of the Laundromat Project.

Kelly Street Garden

On the itinerary was a Kelly Street Garden tour. The garden grows approximately 20 types of produce, including cucumbers, tomatoes, salad greens, kale and eggplant. SAHELI ROY CHOUDHURY / The Bronx Ink

Long-time Kelly Street resident Robert Foster, 63, said the garden was a “‘great way to bring the community back together.” He lamented how closed off neighbors have become, preferring to stay indoors instead of interacting.

Foster was around in the late 1970s when the first garden was inaugurated in block 924, where he helped plant the first batch of seeds. “It ain’t as luxurious,” he said of the old garden, but the spirit of community thrived due to the large presence of children. “You couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a kid,” he said, smiling. Over the years, the conditions of the houses deteriorated, the streets became unsafe as murders and drug activities rose, and the children disappeared behind closed doors. “I can’t fault people for not wanting to have their kids out there,” Foster said, hoping the newly renovated buildings will signal a safer environment for children to come out and play.

The kids were out in full force on Saturday, running around the raised beds on the pebbled pathway, only to be told repeatedly by Rosalba Lopez Ramirez, the garden caretaker, not to stomp on the plants. Ramirez moved to the neighborhood last December and as caretaker she holds regular office hours tending the the garden. Since its opening, the garden “picked up a lot of momentum,” she said, as a new wave of residents followed in Foster’s footsteps and helped out with maintenance.

Until three years ago, Ramirez said many of the buildings on Kelly Street suffered from dire neglect, and the garden lay forgotten. Then Workforce Housing Group intervened. The group, in partnership with Banana Kelly Community Improvement Organization, another non-profit outfit, rehabilitated apartments in five buildings on Kelly Street. With a grant from the Department of Environmental Protection, the two organizations were able to fund the purchase of plants, seeds, and fertilizer for the new garden.

Another long-time resident, who gave only her first name, Maria, 45, spoke in Spanish about the dire living conditions prior to the intervention by the Workforce Housing Group. Speaking through a translator, Maria said her building lacked hot water every winter between 2001 and 2011; many of the buildings did not have a superintendent to look after maintenance. There were severe hygiene issues, she added, rat infestations, and lack of security. All complaints by residents fell on deaf ears. Today, Maria is satisfied with her renovated apartment. It now has a constant supply of hot water, the staircase landings are clean, the building is regularly maintained, and the security is much better.

Ramirez said the garden provides valuable community bonding time as residents now work together to water the plants, harvest the produce, and distribute it through the neighborhood. Residents who volunteer their time to look after the garden get first pick of the produce. Some of it is used in cooking classes taught by “community chefs” at the garden to encourage an exchange of healthy recipes. Ramirez also sets up a table on the pavement in the evening and gives away the remaining produce to passersby for free.

Community

The community gathered outside 924 Kelly Street to celebrate Field Day. Activities included arts and crafts for children, yoga workshops for children and adults, and a barbecue. SAHELI ROY CHOUDHURY / The Bronx Ink

Field Day was organized by five artists who were recipients of a fellowship at The Laundromat Project and wanted to give back to the community. Through the fellowship, they took a number of professional development classes in community engagement and were assigned to a neighborhood in which to execute an outreach program.

One of the fellows, Ro Garrido, 25, said the experience helped overcome the discomfort of working in a community in a different borough. “I don’t have roots here,” Garrido, who hails from Queens, said about the experience in negotiating the differences between Hunts Point and Jackson Heights. “It’s about respecting the people at the garden and how they worked.”

The fellows received $500 from the Laundromat Project, as well as donations from Green Mountain Energy, Workforce Housing Group, and others to purchase art supplies, arrange for food, and other logistics. Though Field Day organizers did not have a final headcount by press time, they said they expected the number of participants among the three neighborhood events in Hunts Point, Harlem, and Bed-Stuy, to exceed last year’s 500.

As the overcast afternoon gradually faded into evening, the echoes of children’s laughter reverberated along Kelly Street. Residents stayed out longer than usual, embracing a new-found communal spirit.

Posted in Featured, Housing, Southern BronxComments (0)

Lack of Cheap Housing Boosts Illegal SROs in the Bronx

The Brook, an affordable housing complex located at 455 East 148th St., offers 190 units to people with mental health problems and low-income residents. (MARIANA IONOVA / The Bronx Ink)

Edgar Gamble has everything he needs packed into 250 square feet of living space. His compact home includes a bed, a small bathroom and a partial kitchen. His window looks onto a leafy, tidy courtyard.  A miniature walk-in closet tucked in the corner of the bedroom would be the envy of most New Yorkers. All of it costs him $600 per month and it certainly beats his last address: a shelter for homeless veterans.

The 49-year-old ex-Marine lived on the street for nearly five months before residence management approved him for a unit at The Brook, a nonprofit supportive housing development providing single-room homes in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx. The 190-unit nonprofit complex was built just three years ago. It has a shiny, pale grey exterior, which stands out next to the neighboring crumbling brownstones with facades slashed by strings of colorful laundry hung onto fire escapes.

The luxury of the Brook is an anomaly in the world of single-tenant homes, which often offer cramped quarters the size of a parking space. Gamble, who recently got hired as a blood laboratory specialist at Bronx Lebanon Hospital, has lived in about a half dozen single-unit homes in specialized Single Room Occupancy (SRO) residences since he left the Marines. Most lacked cooking facilities and extra space was unthinkable. “If you were lucky, you got a room with a bathroom,” he said. “If you got it, it was smaller than a jail cell.”

About 30,000 of these legal SRO units exist in New York City today and they account for only about 8 percent of the housing market. The city defines them as one-bedroom dwellings that usually share bathroom or kitchen facilities with other units. Rooms must be at least 150 square feet and each one has to have a window, city regulations say. All rooms must have access to a fire exit and only tenants over 16 are allowed to occupy them. Owners usually collect the rent each week, charging each tenant somewhere between $100 and $200.

While today single room units are a sliver of the city’s real estate, this wasn’t always the case.  Researchers estimate that, in the 1950s, approximately 200,000 units existed in New York City. But in 1955, the city, motivated by a deep belief that cramped single rooms offered substandard conditions, banned further construction of new SRO residences. The idea was to phase out poor housing and replace it with better-quality dwellings, said Brian Sullivan, an attorney with the SRO Project at MFY Legal Services, a nonprofit firm that represents low-income tenants in housing claims.

“The problem is that the people of the ’50s imagined everyone would prosper and be able to afford good housing,” he said. “So the number of legal SROs plummeted catastrophically over the last 50 years, without any real sense of alternatives.”

The response has been a boom in illegal single room units, which have been springing up outside the city’s regulatory reach with unprecedented speed. City officials say that owners of one- and two-family houses are illegally chopping up their homes to convert them into multiple-unit dwellings that can be rented out to desperate tenants looking for low-cost housing. These homes are often crowded to the point of exceeding city regulations and rooms lack access to proper fire exits, posing a serious risk to tenants.

Francisco Gonzalez, manager of Community District 9, said illegal single units in the Bronx in particular have been on the rise in the last two years, as more new immigrants looking for cheap housing have moved into the borough. The increase in his district has been mostly around Boynton and Ward Avenues, where most newcomers have settled in recent years, according to Gonzalez.

“Many immigrants, they can’t pay $1,000, $1,200 for an apartment,” he said. “These places, some of them cost $150 or $200 a week. That’s much more doable for them.”

But illegal single room occupancies remain a highly contested issue. The city came under fire last year  when three Mexican immigrants died in an early-morning fire that engulfed an illegally converted brownstone in the Belmont section of the Bronx. The tenants, a couple and their 12-year-old son, were living on the second floor of the home and could not reach the fire exit.

The way the city currently deals with illegal units like that one is through inspections and fines, which are usually triggered by complaints from neighbors. Between January 2010 and March of this year, the city received 5,587 complaints about illegally converted homes in the Bronx, according to city records of 311 service requests.

The borough also has the highest rate of serious housing code violations, says a report by NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, which found them in 9.4 percent of all rental units. By comparison, similar violations exist in six percent of rental units in Brooklyn, four percent of those in Manhattan and just two percent of those in Queens. The overall city average hovers around 5.4 percent.

Citywide, the Department of Buildings receives approximately 20,000 complaints about illegal conversions each year, according to spokesperson Tony Sclafani. Inspectors investigate all complaints and, if the residence houses more people than legally permitted by the city’s zoning codes, the Environmental Control Board issues the landlord a fine. They are typically asked to pay around $2,400 but the fine can go up to $25,000 for repeat offenders.

If inspectors find pressing hazardous conditions, they can also issue an order for tenants to leave the building on the spot. Last year, city inspectors issued more than 1,200 vacate orders for converted residences that posed an “immediate threat,” lacked fire exits and were not safe for occupancy, said Sclafani.

But the inspection process is far from seamless. Many inspectors face owners who refuse to open the door and, in such cases, they have no other legal way of gaining access to the inside of the building. They can visit the residence again but, after the second time, they have to post a form requesting access on the door and mail it to the owner. If they still receive no response, the department’s policy says the case must be dropped. This year, inspectors were able to gain access to just 46 percent of properties that received illegal conversion complaints, according to the Mayor’s Management Report. Inspectors can only request an access warrant when there are visible signs hinting the building is an SRO, like multiple mailboxes or doorbells.

Since 2009, the city has tried to crack down on illegal conversions in a more concerted way. Sclafani said his department has orchestrated undercover operations into illegal dwellings, distributed 160,000 fliers as part of an education campaign and formed a task force to target high-risk conversions. The task force — a joint effort between Sclafani’s team, Housing Preservation and Development and the fire department — is aimed at focusing resources on buildings with structural problems and histories of fire incidents.

But the crackdown on illegal conversions will not curb their popularity because there is a large pool of renters looking for cheap housing, said Harold Shultz, a senior fellow at the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, a nonprofit research group that aims to improve housing conditions in the city.

“It’s an issue of a demand that is being unmet by the housing market,” said Shultz, who spent 30 years in the city’s Housing Preservation and Development department, working in the areas of housing preservation and code enforcement. “There’s a lot of single people looking to rent and they don’t have a lot of money.”

This is especially true in the Bronx, where 80 percent of people rent and tenants spend 34 percent of their income on housing, the highest percentage citywide. Although the borough still offers the cheapest rents in New York City, with prices 25 percent lower than those in Manhattan and 22 percent lower than in Queens, upward rental trends have not spared tenants. In 2011, prices averaged $1,008 per month, nine percent higher than what rents were two years ago.

“Illegal units are going to occur as long as there’s a lack of cheap alternatives,” said Sullivan. “There’s just a need for that level of cheap housing.”

The city has attempted to address the shortage of affordable, smaller housing in New York City by toying with the idea of loosening the rules and legalizing technically illegal single room occupancies that pose no real risk to tenants. The city has received recommendations by research organizations like the Pratt Center for Community Development that point to legalization of those SROs as the best way to cope with the demand for affordable housing. Erik Martin Dilan, chair of the city’s Committee on Housing and Buildings, has publicly said that he’s begun to look into the suggestion but no concrete plans have been made yet.

Jill Hamberg, a long-time urban planner and housing expert, worked on drafting legislation that would legalize safe single room occupancies back in the mid-1990s, when the issue first caught the attention of the City Council. The draft legislation was eventually tossed aside but, in the course of the year and a half she spent on the project, she began to understand just how difficult it would be to implement.

“The zoning and building codes are just too complicated to allow for that,” said Hamberg, who now teaches urban planning at Empire State College. She said building owners looking to bring their converted homes up to par with legal SROs will often find it impossible to meet regulatory standards. Most brownstones, for example, would never meet the size requirements of legal SROs because the rooms are often less than the mandated 150 square feet. Technicalities like that, she says, pose barriers to legalization of single room occupancies.

But, Shultz argues that preserving this type of housing is crucial to the city’s low-income population because, without it, homelessness would reach new, unprecedented levels.

“Imagine if you could effectively enforce the rules on all the illegal SROs in New York City,” he said. “Suddenly, you might have another 100,000 homeless people. What would you do with them? Would you rather have them sleeping on the street?”

Mariana Ionova can be contacted via email at mi2300@columbia.edu or on Twitter.

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Fordham Residents Flee Raging Fire in Hazardous Apartment Building

Damage to the second-floor apartment where the blaze began at 2727 University Avenue. (YI DU / The Bronx Ink)

A fire ripped through a University Avenue apartment building on West 195th Street and Eames Place on Sept. 13, injuring 14 residents, three of whom are in critical condition.

Residents described terrifying moments trying to flee on fire escapes that were hard to find in poorly lit, smoke-filled areas. Below a shattered fifth-floor window, a trail of blood stained the building. It was from a resident who severed an artery while trying to escape.

The fire began in a second floor apartment after 11:15 p.m on Wednesday in the northwest Bronx. A 4-year old girl, 34-year old woman and 50-year old man are in critical condition at North Central Bronx Hospital and New York Presbyterian Hospital.

Thick smoke traveled quickly and filled the poorly designed apartment units, making it difficult for residents to find fire escapes. “That was the worst several minutes in my life,” said Jeimy Diaz, a resident in the fifth floor who injured herself while trying to find the fire escape atop the darkly lit roof. “We thought we were gonna die. The whole building is damaged.”

The fire department could not be reached for comment. DNAinfo.com reported 25 fire units, more than 100 firefighters, rushed to battle the blaze inside the six-story building.

According to the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the building has 21 violations described as “immediately hazardous with inadequate fire exits, rodents, lead-based paint, lack of heat, hot water, electricity, or gas.”

The Brooklyn-based landlord, Residential Management Inc., has received 93 complaints this year from residents of the building, according to city records. The complaints range from broken windows, water leaks, mold and defective or missing smoke detectors.

Charred furniture, strewn belongings and broken glass replaced what were once living spaces for many residents.

While the cause of the fire is still under investigation, residents such as Diaz are asking to be relocated. She worries that her children who have asthma will suffer from the lingering chemicals that now rise from the building’s physical damage.

Ryan Hernandez, 12, lives on the first floor and was able to immediately evacuate the burning building. “I didn’t know what was happening,” said Hernandez, “people were screaming and I heard the firemen say ‘get out there! Everybody get out.’”

Coleen Jose can be contacted via email at lj2207@columbia.edu or on Twitter

Yi Du can be contacted via email at yd2257@columbia.edu or on Twitter.

 

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Featured, Housing, Multimedia, Northwest BronxComments (0)

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