Tag Archive | "housing"

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 NeighborhoodsComments (0)

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.

.

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.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, HousingComments (0)

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)

Budget cuts hit pro bono legal services

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

Room 607 at Bronx County Courthouse isn’t a typical courtroom. The judge’s bench is empty, and the jury box, too. A fax machine stands where a court reporter might otherwise sit, and filing cabinets line one of the walls.

A dozen homeowners and bank lawyers are waiting for their cases to come up. When they do, they walk to one of two desks set up at opposite ends of the cavernous room to talk not to a judge but to a court attorney. These are foreclosure conferences.

Last year alone, banks filed more than 2,500 foreclosures in the Bronx, which has the lowest home ownership rate in the city, but the highest foreclosure rate. While the banks have lawyers to make their case at court, most of the homeowners don’t.

“Foreclosure is all about power dynamics,” said Justin Haines, sitting in a spartan office in a converted courtroom adjacent to Room 607. Haines heads this office — Legal Services NYC’s foreclosure unit — which offers free legal counsel to homeowners who risk losing their homes.

“When I first switched over to foreclosures, it was hard for me to decipher some of the exotic loans these banks are offering,” said Haines, who previously represented tenants in Housing Court cases.

As the economy has worsened, demand has soared for services offered by nonprofits like Legal Services NYC, which provide legal counsel to low-income Americans in civil matters like foreclosure. But the same struggling economy has also hit these nonprofits hard, squeezing their main funding sources: federal and state budgets and special lawyers’ accounts that pay interest toward civil legal aid.

In the latest blow, on Nov. 17, Congress slashed $56 million in funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the congressionally-mandated agency that doles out grants to 136 nonprofits nationwide to address the “justice gap” — the US population that cannot afford counsel for civil legal matters. Among those nonprofits is Legal Services NYC.

“These cuts are devastating,” says Jill Siegel, the deputy project director of Legal Services’ Bronx division.

Legal Services already suffered a 4 percent budget cut this year and will lose another $800,000 in the next, Siegel said. Worse yet, it will lose 20 percent of its LSC funding for 2013 to 2014 under changes to the federal formula for distributing the funds, which currently pay for about 44 percent of pro bono legal services nationwide. The 15 percent cutback in LSC grant money last month comes on top of this.

All of these cuts will reverberate in the Bronx, where demand for civil legal aid in the Bronx is growing, said Siegel, whose organization handles everything from wrongful cancellation of public assistance to custody battles in domestic violence cases. Navigating civil courts without legal assistance is like running an “obstacle course,” she said.

Haines’ foreclosure unit is fighting for refunding of a state grant. Last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo cut a special budget for legal services combatting foreclosures. Late last month, Haines and others from Legal Services NYC and other housing counseling and legal service providers held a rally on the steps of Manhattan Supreme Court to ask the state assembly and governor to put foreclosure prevention back in the budget.

At the Bronx courthouse, Haines’ foreclosure office is quiet. On a morning in November, a middle-aged couple sat huddled over papers, waiting their turn for a consultation. Fliers on the wall warned homeowners behind on their mortgages against loan modification scams — agencies that promise they can stop foreclosure on a home in return for steep fees.

Though there were only a few walk-ins, the office’s three attorneys and two paralegals had full caseloads. “I wish I had three times as much staff,” said Haines, who worked through lunch. The couple waited two hours before he was able to see them.

Haines believes providing legal counsel for families facing foreclosure pays off for the government and community. “If you talk about economic recovery, it erodes the tax base when houses are empty,” he said. While most of New York’s homeless population — currently at record-high levels — have been evicted from apartments rather than houses, in the Bronx, about 10 percent come from foreclosures, he said. Many are homeowners who’ve lost their jobs. Others fall behind when tenants they rent rooms to lose their jobs and start missing their monthly payments.

Often Haines represents homeowners in their absence. “In foreclosure, people are often dealing with underemployment,” he said. “There are so many court appearances, and if they miss work that often, they could really get into trouble.”

At the same time that funding cuts pummel Legal Services, other providers in New York are suffering, too — even those not dependent on congressional allocations. Legal Aid Services, which does not receive LSC funding, lost millions in state funding in recent years and hundreds of thousands in city funding. To cope with the cuts, it shed dozens of staff positions from its already overtaxed civil division. For every person the civil practice helps, another eight are turned away.

That reflects a nationwide phenomenon. Legal services providers across the country trimmed their payrolls in recent years as government and IOLTA funding shrank. IOLTA (interest on lawyer trust account) funds, or, in New York, IOLA (interest on lawyers’ accounts), are funds that collect interest from escrow accounts where lawyers hold clients’ money.

Back in the heady days of the real estate boom, these funds were raking in money. Trust accounts seemed an ideal solution to fund civil legal services without costing taxpayers a dime.

“I started in 2005,” Haines said, referring to his previous job at the Legal Aid Society. “And in 2007, we were all dreaming, finding the holes in our work. We could actually design what we needed.”

Then the bubble burst, and legal service providers found themselves struggling just to maintain the same level of services.

At the foreclosure unit, the understaffed team allocates its time carefully.

“People come in, sign in, give us information about their case,” Haines said. “We help them prepare pro se papers” to defend themselves. Often their help stops there. “We really only get involved if there are significant defenses.”

The situation is similar at Housing Court and for public assistance cases.

In public assistance cases, having an advocate can make all the difference. In May, the Urban Justice Center, another New York provider of pro bono legal services, found that 86 percent of decisions to cut off public assistance are cancelled when challenged in hearings. Many of the cancellations can be traced to simple clerical errors at the Human Resources Administration, yet resolving them can be tricky.

Still, few nonprofits have units dedicated to handling public assistance cases, and those that do can’t meet the demand.

“We have to decide which cases would be more difficult for an unrepresented person,” said Maryanne Joyce, who works at Bronx Legal Services’ public benefits unit. Joyce represents appellants who have had their public assistance revoked.

One problem for Joyce’s unit is that many legal services programs are paid for by targeted funds — a mixed blessing. An example is the New York State Assembly’s budget for helping homeowners stave off foreclosures. While Legal Services is grateful for such injections, targeted funding tends to cluster around a few popular causes. Public assistance isn’t one of them.

“It’s not an area that people find compelling,” said Joyce, whose unit has just two staff lawyers and one paralegal. “So it’s not easy to fundraise.”

That’s where LSC funds become all the more precious. The LSC funds are unrestricted. That means Legal Services NYC can apply the money where it’s needed most, as long as it serves the population that qualifies for legal services. Clients must fall below the income threshold of 125 percent of the national poverty line, or about $28,000 per year for a family of four.

In its most recent report on the state of the nation’s justice gap in 2009, the LSC cited studies indicating, not surprisingly, that litigants with legal counsel fare better than those without. Yet on average, LSC-funded programs turn away one client for every client they accept nationwide. And legal services programs as a whole — including those not funded by the LSC — serve only about one-fifth of the needs of low-income Americans.

The consequences of this are visible at Bronx Housing Court. On a typical day, the courtrooms and halls alike are packed with tenants waiting their turn before a judge. Sometimes the line to enter the courthouse winds out the door and along the front of the building.

While the vast majority of the tenants do not have legal counsel, the opposite holds true for the landlords.

“The landlords pay $150 an hour for a lawyer,” said Wanda Salaman, director of Mothers on the Move, a local nonprofit in Hunts Point. “The tenants can’t afford that.”

Tenants in the area often turn to Salaman’s group for advice on eviction cases, and Salaman refers them to legal services providers for help. But the options in the Bronx fall far short of meeting the community’s needs, and with the impending LSC cuts and funding redistribution, that is unlikely to improve.

At the rally outside Supreme Court last month, state senators who opposed cutting the foreclosure prevention budget pleaded for refunding the services.

Compared to the losses in tax revenue and property value that foreclosures represent, “$25 million is a drop in the bucket,” said Adriano Espaillat, who represents Manhattan.

Senator Jeffrey Klein of the Bronx and Westchester said skimping on foreclosure prevention services “makes no economic sense.” A protestor in the crowd behind him held up a sign that read simply: “Every home saved = a stronger economy.”

In the Bronx, banks have moved to foreclose on another 260 homes in the past three months, Klein’s office said. Citywide, the figure is 1,800.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Klein told the crowd.

 

Posted in HousingComments (0)

Renovation program unable to finish projects as funds dwindle


River Park Towers’ south building recently got new windows, but the north unit may not be so lucky if funding doesn’t come through.(C.J. SINNER/Bronx Ink)

Artelia Powell’s brand new-windows do more than keep out a persistent draft as the chilly November air creeps in. For the first time in 10 years, the 41-year-old mother of four can actually see outside. If the River Park Towers resident looks north to the housing complex’s other building, she can also see how lucky she is. Her neighbors must contend with 30-year-old windows, many broken and held together with spidery patterns of masking tape or covered with plastic wrapping.

River Park Towers, a dual-building behemoth for nearly 5,000 west Bronx residents, is sandwiched on a sliver of land between the Major Deegan Expressway and the Harlem River. The south tower received new windows, boilers, faucets and other upgrades over the last three months thanks to subsidies from the Weatherization Assistance Program, a federally-funded nonprofit that works to increase energy efficiency in low-income households, but north tower residents may not be as fortunate.

The program was able to take on large projects like River Park Towers for the first time when stimulus funds tripled their budget in 2009. Now, the stimulus money is spent and the federal program that feeds weatherization program coffers across the country is facing additional budget cuts. As a result, construction on the north tower, and other subsequent large-scale projects, may not be possible.

“Right now, you’d need a crystal ball to figure out what’s going to happen to the lives of a lot of people,” said Fran Fuselli, who has been director of the weatherization program since it began in 1983.

Before 2009, the program operated on $2 million a year, Fuselli said. With stimulus funds, the program had $12 million to hire and educate new workers and provide energy efficient upgrades as many dwellings as they could in two years. Two years – that was part of the deal.

In that time, the program improved 1,800 homes, Fuselli said. The crowded program office features three whiteboards with charts and lists of addresses. Red check marks note which locations are complete.

Before their budget tripled with stimulus funds, they’d been able to do 300 apartments every year and their waiting list was three years long, partially because buildings with hundreds of units – River Park Towers has 1,600 apartments, for example – would have quickly eaten up the annual budget. Fuselli approximated the average cost of weatherizing one home or apartment at $6,500. For both buildings at River Park Towers, she estimated a total bill of around $5 million – more than one third of their entire stimulus allotment.

The proposed cuts to the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which funds programs like this in nearly every state – Fuselli’s program is one of three based in the Bronx – would bring their capacity to 150 units a year.

Since 2009, the federal program has received $5.1 billion to disperse among municipal weatherization groups nationwide. The 2012 budget proposal would cut 2012 funding in half, to $2.57 billion.

Less money also means fewer workers. Fuselli hired and trained 12 additional staff members in 2009, tripling the workforce. Taleigh Smith was hired as an outreach coordinator because of her experience as a community organizer in the South Bronx. She said she’s worried about the 19- and 20-year-olds who were specifically trained for “green jobs” like inspecting homes for inefficiencies.

“They got the training, but they didn’t get a career, which is what was supposed to happen,” Smith said. She paused. “I mean, I keep saying ‘they,’ but my job is on the line, too.”

Fuselli said she already laid off one person, with several more slated to be let go by the end of the year.

As for River Park Towers, Fuselli said they went into the deal knowing they’d only be able to do one building right away, but expected to get money to renovate the second tower from the state government, which was holding a few million dollars for leftover weatherization projects. What she didn’t plan for was a stipulation in eligibility that said the work already had to be underway. By the time Fuselli and her team realized the caveat, she said, it was too late to get started with building inspections, planning and contracting.

“We still did it because we figured doing half was better than not doing any,” Fuselli said. “Those people had needs, and it’s an impetus to do the other half. Walking away from all 1,600 units would have been a disservice.”

She said they’re looking for other partnerships with Con-Ed and various green jobs initiatives to piece the funds together to finish River Park Towers. Fuselli estimated the total cost to renovate both buildings at roughly $5 million, noting that with complexes this size, the owners commit to paying at least 25 percent of that cost.

It winds up being a good deal for landlords, Fuselli said, because they get the upgrades at a fraction of the price, energy costs go down and their tenants’ rent bills don’t go up. Otherwise, landlords can’t afford important fixes without raising rent prices and losing tenants.

“In the 70s, you could walk from Southern Boulevard to Crotona and not find an occupied building, all because owners couldn’t get mortgages and they had to triage what they’d spend their money on, and it became abandonment or arson for profit,” the born-and-raised Bronxite said. “I think what people don’t understand is how close we are again to that reality.”

Leon Johnson, president of the tenant’s association at River Park Towers, said north tower residents are already upset about the imbalance of the south tower’s 43 floors of perfectly identical, geometric windows and the north tower’s drafty and leaky ones. He said some residents came home after Hurricane Irene to find flooded apartments. Still, he said he’s confident that some form of funding will come through.

“Worst case scenario? I can’t even think about it,” he said. “It would be a travesty. We have 1,600 units. It would be a shame to leave 800-plus people out in the cold.”

Posted in Featured, Housing, Northwest BronxComments (0)

Page 1 of 3123