Tag Archive | "housing"

Budget cuts hit pro bono legal services

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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.”

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Landlord ordered to pay tenant $33,000

A Bronx single mother could soon be collecting a fat check from her landlord, paying her back for charging her too much rent on her one-bedroom apartment.

On Sept. 1, the state’s Department of Housing and Community Renewal found that Iris Vega-Ortiz, 41, was charged an excess of $400 every month for her Perry Avenue apartment in Norwood, and is now due to collect more than $33,000 from her landlord.

“I’m excited, I wasn’t really looking for money,” said Vega-Ortiz, who had originally filed a complaint with the state back in March 2009.

The New Jersey-based landlord company that owns Vega-Ortiz’s building, Urban American Management, denied any wrongdoing and said it will appeal. Meanwhile, local housing advocates said it’s the largest ruling they’ve seen by the state for an individual tenant in the neighborhood ever.

“In the years that I’ve been doing this work, I’ve never seen a settlement, a ruling this high,” said Sally Dunford of the West Bronx Housing and Neighborhood Resource Center, a non-profit organization that helps Norwood residents with housing issues. “It’s the biggest one I’ve ever seen. It was just really good to see the system work the way it’s supposed to work.”

Vega-Ortiz first moved into the ground floor unit of the six-story apartment building on 3210 Perry Avenue in December 2008, where she still lives today with her aunt and two young daughters.

“I started getting leaks, mold, and I couldn’t take a bath because the pipes were clogged,” recalled Vega-Ortiz, who is currently unemployed after losing her job at a pharmaceutical company more than a year ago. “There were just a lot of problems with the apartment they didn’t disclose. I felt like I was paying too much.”

As a result, Vega-Ortiz decided to file a rent overcharge complaint to the state a few months after moving in. Although Vega-Ortiz said she wanted to leave the apartment, a multi-year lease and losing her job compelled her to stay, despite the headaches she experienced.

Then a fire broke out in the upper floors of the building in late June of this year, damaging Vega-Ortiz’s apartment, and the now two-year-old complaint came back to the table. Her landlord offered her another apartment on the condition that she drop her rent complaint to the state.

“I told them I’m not going to do that, that’s not guaranteeing me anything,” Vega-Ortiz said, adding that the landlord had even drafted a complaint withdrawal letter in her name.

That’s when the state finally responded to Vega-Ortiz, saying that the rent for her apartment was only supposed to be $554.75 a month, not $975. According to the state, Vega-Ortiz is owed more than $33,000, including more than $10,000 in overpaid rent and nearly $22,000 in punitive charges for intentionally jacking up the rent.

In an email statement, Urban American Management said they have filed to appeal the state’s decision, adding that Vega-Ortiz was “fully aware” of the rent when she moved in.

According to a database run by New York City’s housing department, there are currently 31 open violations for 3210 Perry Avenue, where Vega-Ortiz lives, including six severe hazards. Urban American owns numerous properties across the city. A blog, nyctenantadvocate.wordpress.com, has been dedicated to tracking Urban American’s disputes with its tenants.

Currently, Vega-Ortiz and her family all live and sleep in the living room because the bedroom remains unusable.  Vega-Ortiz said she planned to move out of the apartment in December when her current lease is up.

“My next step is to see how they are going to pay me,” said Vega-Ortiz, adding that she would not rule out the possibility of taking her landlord to court for the money.

Dunford, her housing advocate, said it’s not unusual for landlords to overcharge tenants.

“We see it quite frequently. It is unusual for tenants to fight and win,” said Dunford. “Tenants don’t understand that the law is really on their side. But they’re so intimidated, it’s scary when your home is involved.”

A version of this article also appeared in the New York Daily News.

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They (still) can’t go home again, NY Times

In late September, several residents of Villa Charlotte Brontë cooperative in the Bronx awaited permission to return home after Tropical Storm Irene caused a landslide at their building.  The wait continues. NY Times reports there is concern about the stability of the foundation of two of the buildings overlooking the Hudson River.

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Fire in Soundview building leaves tenants with holes in the walls

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Engines 54 and 41 gathered up in front of 1591 E 172nd street to extinguish a fire that started in an apartment on the first floor. (DIANE JEANTET /The Bronx Ink)

Smoke overcame the odor of fresh paint as six apartments were damaged by a fire that started on the first floor of a five-story building in the Soundview section of the Bronx shortly after 3.30 p.m on Monday, October 17. No one was injured.

The cause of the fire in the first floor apartment at 1591 East 172nd Street remained unknown about two hours after firefighters from the Engine 96, Ladder 54 put out the blaze. A fire department official said it may have been caused by maintenance error.

“It appears the crew was using a torch to remove the tile from the floor,” said fire chief Raymond M. Stanton. “We had to open walls and put water in two apartments.”

An hour before the apartment caught fire, three men were seen removing the flooring in one of the apartments using a torch with a flame-spreader nozzle. In the basement, the building superintendent, who gave his name only as Allan, was working on fixing the boiler, which, according to the residents had been out for a week.

At around noon on Monday, Evelyn Dejesus, 49, noticed a small amount of smoke coming out of the apartment that was being repaired by the crew. Dejesus, a 13-year resident living on the second floor, said she alerted the two men, who assured her several times they had everything under control. “They told me it was only a few towels burning,” said Dejesus smoking a cigarette frenetically, standing on a pool of water in the first floor landing.

The resident then witnessed the workers’ attempt to stop the smoke by throwing small buckets of water on the fire.

Moments later, the smoke had blackened the hallways on the first and second floors. That’s when Dejesus decided to call the fire department. “I knew the workers were doing something wrong,” she said pointing out at the negligence of the maintenance team that had left the building by the time the firefighters arrived on site.

In September 2011, Anthony Gazivoda, the powerful Albanian real estate developer acquired the Soundview apartment complex which according to New York City’s Department of Buildings’ website, has 11 open violations mainly for boiler malfunction. The workers told reporters two hours before the fire that they had been hired by Gazivoda to renovate the building.

After the firefighters left, three men representing Gazivoda arrived at the building to talk to the tenants and assess the damages. All refused to identify themselves. When asked who the workmen were, one man said: “We don’t know, we’re trying to figure it out just like you.”

One of the three Gazivoda representatives said the workers were not licensed. The man answered to the name Henrik but refused to give his full name to the BronxInk reporters. One of the two brothers who own Gazivoda Realty Co Inc, is named Henrik Gazivoda. A number of tenants angry at the damage caused by the fire, complained to the representative and identified him several times as the owner of the building.

Edward Maldonado, who has lived in another apartment on the first floor for 10 years, said he believed the workers were questionable. “They take workers off the books,” said Maldonado, as he moved his sofa out of the living room, left in ruins by the firemen. “I’m going to be waiting, gentlemen,” he shouted as the three representatives were leaving the building, promising they would be back in the morning.

Dozens of tenants were affected by the fire that started in between the walls of the buildings, which meant firefighters had to demolish sections of the walls and ceilings of six apartments around and above the epicenter of the fire.

Residents said they were worried about the coming nights. “Both my children are asthmatic, my door locks are broken, I can’t find my cat,” said Zoerain Siugzda, a resident living on the second floor. “Tell me what I am supposed to do.”

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Tenants sue landlord for moldy building, NY Daily News

Tenants in an East Tremont building announced Thursday that they were suing their landlords over the living conditions in their apartment, reports the New York Daily News.

The building at 2097 Webster Avenue, they say, has been plagued by leaks, cockroaches and rats.

The tenants are hoping for a Bronx Housing Court to appoint an administrator to manage the building. Housing court judges can appoint private administrators to unsafe buildings under state law.

 

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Bronx lacking building inspectors and funds to keep homes safe, NY Daily News

New York City’s buildings department lacks funds and personnel to respond to Bronx housing violations and maintain safety codes, reports the New York Daily News.

Three district managers of community boards and a councilman in the Bronx charge that the city is neglecting the Bronx when it comes to allocating funds and assigning inspectors to assess building code complaints.

If these complaints are not investigated, the Bronx will be prone to more fires linked to illegal subdivisions for example, the local officials charge.

According to data in the recently released Mayor’s Management Report cited by the Daily News, average response time for nonemergency complaints grew last year.

 

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Bronx apartment buildings continue through the wringer with latest sale, reports Crain’s

A group of Bronx apartment buildings is going through their fourth sale in five years, reports Crain’s business news. Bluestone Group had purchased the buildings for $10 million a little more than a year ago after they’d been foreclosed on, and promised tenants that the buildings would be renovated.

Turns out, they were bluffing. The buildings were sold to Bronx-based Gazivoda Realty Co. for $17.6 million, which Crain’s attributes to a notice that tenants received late last week and to the real estate trade publication Real Deal.

Department of Housing Preservation and Development officials told Crain’s that they’ve been in contact with the new buyer to make sure they “take the interests of current tenants to heart.”

The six building-struggle started in 2006 when Ocelot Capital Group, which no longer exists, bought the buildings for $16.5 million, but then abandoned responsibilities.

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